EEOC Prepares To Broaden “Disability” Definition Under ADA Regulations

September 18, 2009

Proposed regulations modifying existing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) rules concerning the conditions that an individual must meet to qualify as having a “disability” for purposes of claiming protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are expected to be published in the Federal Register the week of September 21, 2009.

On September 16, 2009, the EEOC announced that Commissioners had approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (Proposed Regulation) which would make several significant changes to the its current regulatory definition of the term “disability” for purposes of the ADA.  The EEOC announced this week that the Proposed Regulation is expected to be published in the Federal Register the week of September 21, 2009.  Interested persons will have 60 days from the publication date of the Proposed Rule to submit comments to the EEOC concerning the Proposed Regulation.

Why The Change?

The proposed changes are intended to respond to amendments enacted under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which took effect January 1, 2009.   Enacted on September 25, 2008, the ADAAA made a number of significant changes to the definition of “disability” in the ADA as well as directed EEOC to amend its existing ADA regulation to reflect the changes made by the ADAAA.

The ADAAA amendments to the ADA definition of “disability” make it easier for certain individuals alleging employment discrimination based on disability to establish disability status under the ADA’s definition of “disability” by overruling various Supreme Court holdings and portions of EEOC’s existing ADA regulations considered by many members of Congress as too narrowly applying the definition of “disability.”  

While the ADAAA retains the ADA’s basic definition of “disability” as an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment, provisions of the ADAAA that took effect on January 1, 2009 change the required interpretation of these terms.  Under the ADAAA, “major life activities” now include both many activities that the EEOC has recognized (e.g., walking) as well as activities that EEOC has not specifically recognized (e.g., reading, bending, and communicating), as well as major bodily functions (e.g., “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions”). 

In addition to these clarifications, the ADAAA also broadens the reach of the ADA’s definition of “disability” in various other respects.  For instance, the ADAAA:

  • Asserts that mitigating measures other than “ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses” shall not be considered in assessing whether an individual has a disability;
    Clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active;
  • Changes the definition of “regarded as” so that it no longer requires a showing that the employer perceived the individual to be substantially limited in a major life activity, and instead says that an applicant or employee is “regarded as” disabled if he or she is subject to an action prohibited by the ADA (e.g., failure to hire or termination) based on an impairment that is not transitory and minor; and
  • Provides that individuals covered only under the “regarded as” prong are not entitled to reasonable accommodation.

As part of the required implementation of its provisions, the ADAAA also mandates that the EEOC revise that portion of its existing regulations defining the term “substantially limits” and “major life activities” to comport to the changes enacted by the ADAAA.  In response to this statutory direction, the Proposed Regulation to be published next week proposes changes both to the ADA regulation itself and to the Interpretive Guidance (also known as the Appendix) that was published at the same time as the original ADA regulation. See 29 C.F.R. section 1630.  The Appendix provides further explanation from the EEOC on how its ADA regulations should be interpreted.

About The New Guidance and Proposed Regulations

In anticipation of the publication of the Proposed Regulation, the EEOC on September 16, 2009 sought to provided a peek into its new post-ADAAA construction of the ADA definition of disability by releasing its “Questions and Answers on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the ADA Amendments Act of 2008” Questions and answers on the Notice of Proposed Rulingmaking for the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (the “Q&As”). 

The Q&As and other EEOC statements released this week indicate that the Proposed Regulation will emphasize that the definition of disability — an impairment that poses a substantial limitation in a major life activity — must be construed broadly. It will provide that that major life activities include “major bodily functions;” that mitigating measures, such as medications and devices that people use to reduce or eliminate the effects of an impairment, are not to be considered when determining whether someone has a disability; and that impairments that are episodic or in remission, such as epilepsy, cancer, and many kinds of psychiatric impairments, are disabilities if they would “substantially limit” major life activities when active. The regulation also will provides a streamlined means through which persons claiming disability may demonstrate a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working, and implements the ADAAA’s new standard for determining whether someone is “regarded as” having a disability.

Required Response

Employers face increasing exposure to disability claims as a result of the ADAAA amendments, new genetic information nondiscrimination rules enacted under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), and a heightened emphasis on disabilities discrimination law enforcement by the Obama Administration.  In light of this rising exposure, employers and others covered by the ADA should evaluate their existing practices in light of the Q&As and make adjustments, submit comments regarding the Proposed Regulations or both as part of their efforts to manage their organization’s ADA liability exposure.  Because the ADAAA already is in effect, employers already face the possibility of being called upon to defend their hiring and employment practices under the amended ADAAA definition of disability, even though the EEOC has not issued final guidance.  For this reason, it is important that employers take timely action both to update relevant written policies and procedures, as well as to change hiring and other operational processes, conduct training, implement appropriate oversight and monitoring and take other steps to mitigate these exposures.

If you have questions about or need assistance evaluating, commenting on or responding to the  Proposed Regulations, the Q&As, or other employment, compensation, employee benefit, workplace health and safety, corporate ethics and compliance practices, concerns or claims, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers and others about compliance with federal and state equal employment opportunity, compensation and employee benefit, workplace safety, and other labor and employment, as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 20 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Some other recent updates that may be of interested include the following, which you can access by clicking on the article title:

For important information concerning this communication click here.   If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.