Supreme Court Set to Decide What Constitutes 'Disability' Under ADA

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Three crucial rulings on civil rights protections for people with disabilities
June 9, 1999

(NEW YORK, June 9, 1999) -- Federal civil rights for people with disabilities will be tested when the United States Supreme Court issues three much-anticipated rulings about the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Wednesday.

"An alarming Catch-22 binds these three cases together," said Catherine Hanssens, director of Lambda's AIDS Project.

"Contrary to what some lower courts have ruled, people who are able to work because they have gained a measure of control over their disabilities should not then lose federal protections meant to help them when they face workplace discrimination," she said.

Lambda participated in friend-of-the-court briefs in all three cases, one of which was co-authored by Hanssens.

The Supreme Court rulings will be of tremendous importance to people with HIV, many of whom have benefitted from treatment advances in the last few years but may still face chronic health problems and irrational discrimination.

The unprecedented cluster of ADA cases -- Albertsons v. Kirkingburg, Sutton v. United Airlines, and Murphy v. United Parcel Service -- was argued over two successive days in April and raises questions regarding what constitutes a "disability" under the federal law.

In Kirkingburg, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the argument that only severely debilitating conditions are protected by the ADA, while in Sutton and Murphy, the Tenth Circuit ruled that people with disabilities controlled or alleviated through medication or other treatments are not protected by the federal civil rights law.

Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn said, "Let's not confuse 'disability' with 'inability.' The vast majority of people with disabilities are productive members of society."

Dohrn continued, "The employers in these cases view people who can work despite their disabilities as both too disabled for their jobs but not disabled enough to warrant protection. That's nonsense."

Hanssens added, "Laws against sex and racial discrimination protect not just women and people of color but Americans of all genders and races. Civil rights laws, by their very nature, are meant to be broad and protect large numbers of people; the ADA is no different in this regard."

(Albertsons v. Kirkingburg, No. 98-591; Sutton v. United Airines, No. 97-1943; and Murphy v. United Parcel Service, No. 97-1992)


Contact: Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 (pager); Catherine A. Hanssens 212-809-8585 x 215


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