New ADA Rules Broaden Definition of 'Disability'

Despite the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act more than two decades ago, many disabled workers have found it difficult to get their employers to agree to and pay for changes that would help them be more productive.

That's because, historically, the definition of what it means to be disabled has been interpreted narrowly, giving business an upper hand in determining what is or isn't a disability -- and whether accommodations are needed.

Recently revised rules, however, have broadened the interpretation of what it means to be disabled. The new mandates, issued last month by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, go into effect today.

The changes, which were required under the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, don't change the core definition of what it means to disabled: a physical or mental condition that limits one or more major life activities; or conditions, such as HIV or recovery from alcoholism.

But the new rules now include distinct language that says "disability" should be broadly interpreted to the maximum extent permitted under the ADA. The revised regulations in effect put less attention on employees' disabilities and more focus on whether discrimination has taken place and whether reasonable accommodations can be made.

In other words, the onus is now on employers to prove that an employee is indeed not disabled.

The widening of the law likely means workers, such as someone with hearing loss who wears a hearing aid, may now be considered to have a disability since the appliance may not correct hearing impairment in noisy workplaces, says Bob D'Errico, associate director of Jawonio Inc., a New City-based nonprofit that helps people with emotional and physical disabilities secure jobs.

The organization works with about 300 employers in New York City's northern suburbs. It notes that people with disabilities have an unemployment rate that's roughly two to three times that of the nation's current 9 percent jobless rate.

The new provisions also allow those whose illnesses are in remission to claim disability whereas in the past they may not have been able to, D'Errico says. "From that standpoint, there are more people who could find some recourse through the bill."

Part of Jawonio's mission is to allay employers fears that employing workers with disabilities is a costly venture. That isn't so, says D'Errico. The average cost to accommodate someone with a physical disability, generally, is "a few hundred dollars."

Further, D'Errico says, a request for accommodation doesn't oblige an employer to make that specific request, if the goal can be achieved through different means. Employers also worry that hiring an employee with disabilities will result in higher insurance costs, which isn't true, he says.

Some business owners and groups have expressed concern that a more liberal interpretation of the term "disability" would make it easier for workers to make false claims about disabilities, and abuse accommodation requests and leaves of absence.

The changes, which took effect in January 2009, more than two years before the final rules were issued, are seen as the driver behind the significant increase in the number of disability discrimination cases filed with the EEOC. Last year, 25,165 such claims were filed, up 17 percent from 21,451 in 2009, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's foremost business lobbying group, has praised the changes, however, noting that the legislation passed Congress with bipartisan support.

In a written statement issued in March, the chamber said, "The ADA Amendments reflect a carefully crafted compromise between the business community and the disability community."

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