Congress Pushes Back Against Supreme Court, Returns Civil Rights to People with Disabilities

Congress, in a stinging rebuke of the Supreme Court, has passed the ADA Amendments Act, which reverses a series of Supreme Court cases that made it nearly impossible to vindicate civil rights enshrined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. In passing the ADA Amendments Act, Congress is finally pushing back at a Court that has been hard at work dismantling our civil rights infrastructure.

In one case after another, the Supreme Court whittled away at the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act by ignoring Congressional intent and narrowly interpreting the definition of disability. (How "conservative" is ignoring the intent of Congress, anyway?) This created a Catch-22 situation: if a person is able to limit the effect of having a disability, say by taking medication or using a medical device, that person would no longer be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and employers were free to discriminate at will. The result has been devastating. Plaintiffs lose 97% of employment-related cases under the ADA.

The absurdity played out in courtrooms across the country where judges, following the Supreme Court precedent, ruled that people with epilepsy, cancer, muscular dystrophy, mental retardation and even blindness were not "disabled" under the ADA. But, as the bill's sponsor, Congressman Steny Hoyer points out, the ADA is not about disability, it's about the prevention of wrongful and unlawful discrimination. The "conservative" Supreme Court got it wrong when it willfully ignored the intent of Congress and focused on the question of whether a person is really "disabled," when the real question is whether the person was treated unfairly because the employer was making assumptions about what a person can and can't do -- which is the very heart of discrimination. Think about it like this: would we require people alleging race or sex discrimination to first prove their race or gender? No, we look at whether race or gender was the basis for the adverse action.

According to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, "the original ADA did for people with disabilities what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did for communities of color -- safeguard their civil rights and protect them from discrimination." A Supreme Court packed with right-wing appointments has taken a wrecking ball to the ADA. Its about time Congress put the pieces back together.

The bill now goes to President Bush, who is expected to sign it into law this week.