A Victory in Disguise for the Disabled


By Suzanne Robitaille Advocates for the disabled are deeply troubled by the Supreme Court's Jan. 8 decision imposing new limits on how far employers must go to accommodate a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I take a different view. The decision is actually in keeping with the spirit of the ADA and ensures that the law will protect those who need it most.

In Toyota v. Williams, the court sided with Toyota Motor Manufacturing, which refused to tailor a job for an assembly-line worker who claimed she developed carpal-tunnel syndrome on the job. In its unanimous decision, the high court held that Ella Williams' condition did not meet the ADA's definition of a disability because it had not "substantially limit[ed]" any "major life [activity]."

Defenders of the disabled's rights argue that the 1.7 million U.S. workers with repetitive-motion injuries should get reasonable accommodations under the ADA. And they worry that the ruling could signal the end of accommodations for minor impairments. Paula Taylor, who suffers from hyperacusis, a painful sensitivity to noise, says before the ADA, she had difficulty getting her employer to provide a $20 device that muffles the volume on her telephone. "Overall, it has been hard enough to gain accommodations [because] the usual response is, 'You can hear, can't you? What's the problem?'" Taylor says.

AVOIDING LAWSUITS. I share Taylor's concerns. I have a disability myself -- I am deaf. But the Supreme Court didn't undermine any of the basic architecture of the landmark law, which is designed to encourage employers to hire the disabled. Rather, the ruling makes clear that a disability must affect a range of manual tasks or duties, not just job-specific ones. And if you have a disability under the law, your employer must provide reasonable accommodations in order for you to be a productive worker.

Williams' case is hardly unique, and a decision in her favor might have forced corporations to regularly create and customize jobs in response to ongoing disability complaints by workers. The law's ambiguity in the past has often made it difficult for companies to know the appropriate response to a worker's request for accommodation. And if a company bends over too far, it runs the risk of opening the floodgates to frivolous lawsuits.

This new decision will actually benefit disabled workers by drawing clear guidelines for all businesses to follow, encouraging all types of employers to recognize and accommodate legal disabilities. Look at Casey Martin, who successfully sued the Professional Golf Assn. for the right to use a golf cart as an accommodation for a circulatory disorder in his right leg. If the law had been more clearly defined in the first place, such a lawsuit could probably have been avoided.

WHITE-COLLAR ALTERNATIVES. The Supreme Court ruling should also help workplace relations. People are sometimes resentful of colleagues who get what might be perceived as special treatment or "extras," such as ergonomic furniture, because of a disability. Better understanding of the ADA helps those with disabilities and those without to know what is appropriate. Businesses that might have otherwise been leery about hiring people with handicaps can now relax a little.

A ruling in Williams' favor might have enticed other U.S. workers to make specious, even illegal claims, such as passing off an out-of-workplace injury as a disabilities case. There's a place for workplace injury claims. It's the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Using the ADA as a crowbar for workplace claims would be a misuse of the law.

Furthermore, the court was right in deciding that Toyota v. Williams should not set precedent for the average U.S. workplace. Having to constantly create customized jobs would hurt productivity. In the auto industry, every minute counts. And in fact, a recognition of the grueling challenges of manufacturing has encouraged employers to create alternative, white-collar positions, allowing more people with disabilities into the workforce.

RECOGNIZING LIMITS. A ruling for Williams "had the potential to cost corporations and the American economy billions of dollars a year," says Christopher Collins, an employment attorney at Proskauer Rose in New York. "[It] could have threatened American industry so much that companies might have shifted jobs overseas to avoid overregulation."

People with disabilities often are more successful once they recognize their limitations and find ways to work within them. Taylor, the hyperacusis sufferer, says she has adjusted to her work environment and points out that she has a wide variety of job skills in a field that doesn't require extensive phone use. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said it best before issuing the opinion: "Don't you have to look at both what they can do and what they can't do?" The answer is yes.

One can't say this ruling solves everything. The ADA will undoubtedly require further interpretation from the courts. But disabled persons should take notice from this latest decision: They have to make themselves as versatile as possible.

Employers are usually more than willing to accommodate any reasonable request. The key is for employees and those who hire them to share the responsibility for finding that middle ground. And thanks to this ruling, it's now easier to find. Robitaille writes Assistive Technology, only for BW Online.

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