Employer-Endorsed Disability Bill Sails Through Committees

By Staff Report

Jun. 18, 2008

Legislation that would ensure a broad interpretation of a law that bans discrimination against people with disabilities sailed through two House committees on Wednesday, June 18, and could soon get a vote on the House floor.

The measure, which would amend the Americans With Disabilities Act, passed the House Education and Labor Committee, 43-1, and the House Judiciary Committee, 37-0.

In a rare show of cooperation, both employer and advocate groups support the bill. They hope strong approval by the full House will generate momentum to push it through the Senate and get President Bush to sign it this year. President George H.W. Bush enacted the original ADA in 1990.

The bill clarifies that Congress meant for the ADA to encompass anyone “with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” regardless of whether it is episodic, in remission or being controlled through medication.

The measure responds to Supreme Court decisions in 1999 and 2002 that narrowed the scope of the law. Following those rulings, courts have been applying a strict standard for defining disability and have held that “mitigating measures” like treatment can limit protections.

“These court rulings have effectively made the very workers Congress intended to cover nearly two decades ago subject to legal employment discrimination today,” said Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the labor committee. “Workers with diabetes, cancer, epilepsy—the very workers ADA had intended to protect—can be legally fired or passed over for promotion just because of their disability.”

Republicans on the panel were satisfied that the previous version of the bill had been modified to address concerns of the business community. For instance, the final measure retains language that requires an ailment to impede a major life activity in order to qualify as a disability.

The groups “were able to come together and refine a product that represents the best chance I think we have to see legislation enacted this year,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-California and the ranking member of the labor committee.

Business and disability advocates say that they have been working together for weeks with congressional staff to hammer out a compromise.

The bill “would maintain the functionality of the workplace while providing important protections for individuals with disabilities,” wrote Jeffrey McGuiness, president of the HR Policy Association, a lobbying group representing 250 large employers, in a letter to Miller and McKeon.

Miller praised the interest groups for cooperating rather than butting heads, and noted that the final product won’t completely please everyone.

“They’ve been exacting negotiations,” Miller said. “They’ve been difficult.”

Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, described the final measure as “something we’re all going to be able to live with.”

He warned members of Congress not to significantly revise the bill as it wends through the legislative process.

“If they do, it’s going to be hard for this coalition moving forward,” he said.

The fact that the disparate groups have united could catalyze Senate action, according to Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

“Senate members, once they see the deal, once they see the historic nature of the communities coming together, we think it will pass quickly,” Zirkin said.

Disabled individuals who want to work are another strong force pushing the bill.

“It’s about fairness in the workplace,” said former Rep. Tony Coelho, the primary author of the original ADA and past chairman of the board of directors of the Epilepsy Foundation. “A job is our dignity.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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