Current Issues Regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act
President George Bush, noting that "statistics consistently demonstrate that disabled people are the poorest, least educated, and largest minority in America," signed the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") into law in 1990. The ADA prohibits private employers from discriminating against a "qualified individual with a disability" in employment decisions. The Act defines a disability in one of three ways: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) a record of such an impairment; or (3) being regarded by others as having such an impairment. The ADA also prohibits employers from inquiring into an applicant's disability during the pre-employment stage, and places restrictions on medical examinations before extending an employment offer.6 Once the applicant becomes an employee, the employer still cannot require medical exams unless it can show that the concerns are "job-related and consistent with business necessity."
The ADA followed the legislation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and more specifically, the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with handicaps by federal contractors, federal agencies, recipients of federal grants, and participants in federal programs. Title I of the ADA parallels most of the substantive provisions from the Rehabilitation Act and applies them to private employers. Thus, when the ADA was signed in 1990, it became the most comprehensive piece of disability civil rights legislation ever enacted in America." Congress noted that the Act would cover more than forty-three million people and would "provide a clear and comprehensive national man- date for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities."
People with disabilities today are still disproportionately poor. Fifty-nine percent of disabled Americans live in households with in- comes less than $25,000, and the poverty rate for adults with disabilities triples that of the rest of the population. One commentator argues that inability to gain employment underlies these poverty problems.
Because Congress intended the ADA to cover a wide range of societal problems with disabled Americans, the legislature used broad and vague terms throughout the Act.6 Many interpretive issues now arise-for example, whether former employees are covered, and whether a disability should be defined with regard to mitigating measures and technical advancements. One commentator has noted that the term "disability" must be defined under social, not legislative, standards. For example, in previous times, reading was not considered an "essential function" and therefore persons with dyslexia were not disabled. In the future, physical disabilities will become less important because machines will do most of the physical labor. Today, however, both physical and mental disabilities make a qualified job candidate less desirable.' Thus, because of ever- changing societal standards and the broad language used in the ADA, the following three Notes attempt to identify and provide solutions to three uncertain areas of ADA law.