WASHINGTON – Maryland advocates for the disabled fear that a recent Supreme Court ruling narrowing the Americans with Disabilities Act will make an already “very hostile climate” for disabled workers even more so.
The court’s unanimous ruling last week will make it harder for workers who suffer from wrist pain, a bad back and other ailments to be successful in claiming legal disability.
“It was a very hostile climate for plaintiffs or for people who claim to have disabilities,” before the court’s ruling, said Philip Fornaci, executive director of Maryland Disability Law Center. The private, non-profit organization that protects the rights of the disabled.
“But now, it’s even more hostile. This makes it more difficult. It narrows the class of people who would be covered,” he said.
At least one Maryland business group said narrowing that group is a good thing.
Monica James, a vice president of government affairs at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said business will view the ruling as “the proper test that needs to be applied” to determine if a person is disabled or not.
“You just can’t apply a blanket test,” James said.
The case was brought by a Toyota plant worker in Kentucky who claimed the company needed to make accommodations for her in the workplace after she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. She was later fired from the plant.
In a decision written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the court ruled that a person must have an impairment that “substantially limits” activities that are of “central importance to one’s daily life” to be considered disabled.
“Merely having an impairment does not make one disabled for purposes of the ADA,” O’Connor wrote. “Claimants also need to demonstrate that the impairment limits a major life activity.”
Furthermore, the impairment must be “permanent or long term,” not an injury that is likely to heal.
The decision could affect millions of workers who suffer from common workplace injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, that sometimes prevent employees from doing their jobs.
The Department of Labor estimated that more than 1 million U.S. workers suffer repetitive stress injuries.
Advocates worry that the court’s ruling will close the door on the very same people the landmark federal law was intended to protect, by making it harder for workers to prove they are disabled and therefore entitled to an accommodation by their employers.
“One of the unfortunate messages that this ruling is sending to businesses in Maryland is that it may be all right to take a hard-line approach about working with people with disabilities,” said Jeffrey Rosen, general council at the National Council on Disability. The federal agency makes recommendations to the president and Congress on issues affecting 54 million Americans with disabilities.
Rosen said employers now will be more skeptical of workers who claim a disability.
Fornaci expressed a similar view, claiming that the court’s decision further limits the scope of the most important civil rights legislation over the last 20 years.
“By further limiting it, it does not help anyone,” Fornaci said. ” It’s important for people with disabilities to enter and remain in the workforce,” he pleaded.
The ADA was adopted in 1990 to protect the 43 million Americans who suffered from a disability.
Since its enactment, it has provisions such as wheelchair ramps in public places commonplace. The law has also made it illegal to discriminate against the disabled on the job, and it obligates employers to make accommodations for disabled workers.
Kathleen Blank, an attorney with the National Council on Disability, said that after ADA was adopted, a lot of employers stepped up and provided accommodations for disabled people who asked for it.
But there are some employers who are and were concerned the ADA had loopholes for people with minor injuries. Those employers, Blank said, are probably happy that the court ruling will result in “a more stringent demand to say you are disabled.”