Happy 30th Birthday ADA! Oh How You've Changed Over the Years!

by Gail Cohen, Esq. - Assistant General Counsel Employment and Litigation

& Marti Cardi, Esq. - Senior Compliance Consultant and Legal Counsel,

July 24, 2020


The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990.  Here we’ll take a look back on how the ADA has evolved from its passage in 1990 to the present day.

The pace of developments in the ADA and leave of absence world continues at such speed that sometimes our blog posts trip over each other in their haste to get published! To ensure you have seen our most recent information, please scroll down to catch the latest posts – including ones on the new FMLA forms and the Massachusetts PFML regulations! Hot stuff!


Radar Guy BirthdayIn the 1990s and early 2000s, court interpretation, particularly at the US Supreme Court, led to a narrowing of an employer’s obligations to provide reasonable accommodation(s).  Specifically, in 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Sutton v. United Airlines, and held that the plaintiffs, who were severely myopic and could not meet the airline’s standard for vision requirements, were not disabled because their condition could be remedied through mitigating measures like prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses.  In 2002, the Court further narrowed the pool of individuals who had qualifying “disabilities” in the matter of Toyota Manufacturing of Kentucky v. Williams.  In Williams, the court determined that the term “disability” should be strictly interpreted and required a showing that the impairment severely restricted the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.  I can tell you firsthand that once the Williams case was decided, employers and their attorneys were focused on whether the employee was “disabled enough” before engaging in any interactive discussion(s) to identify reasonable accommodation(s) to help that individual perform their essential job functions.

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) was passed and became effective January 1, 2009 as a direct response to Sutton and Williams.  As stated in the Appendix to the ADA regulations, updated following the ADAAA:

“After the Court's decisions in Sutton that impairments must be considered in their mitigated state and in Toyota that there must be a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled, lower courts more often found that an individual's impairment did not constitute a disability. As a result, in too many cases, courts would never reach the question whether discrimination had occurred.”


Consequently, the ADA was amended to, among other things, eliminate the notion that the question of whether someone was disabled is determined by considering mitigating measures.  Instead, the person’s condition is now to be evaluated without the effect of such measures.  Similarly, the ADA was amended to clarify that the definition of disability is to be construed in favor of broad coverage, rejecting the Williams doctrine that a strict standard should be applied to whether an impairment “substantially limits” one or more major life activities.  In general, the expressed intention of the amendment was to require employers to focus more on what they could do to assist disabled employees (now a much larger pool of individuals), rather than whether the employee demonstrated he or she was sufficiently disabled to warrant the employer’s assistance.

At Matrix we have been partnering with clients to help them achieve compliance with the ADA since 2014.  Although the requirement that an employee must be “disabled” was not thrown out completely by the ADAAA, the focus is now on how an employer can help an employee with a physical or mental impairment perform his or her job.  In the last six years, we have seen how well-intentioned, diligent employers can ask the right questions to identify accommodations that succeed for both the employee and the employer.  We have helped clients grant reasonable leaves of absence that allow the employee the time he or she needs to recover or seek treatment to enable a return to work and the gamut of accommodations that enable an employee to remain in the workplace.  Over even this six-year time frame, the nature of requests has changed with the times.

Want to learn more about how our ADA solutions can assist you and keep you compliant?  Click here, and let’s all wish the Americans with Disabilities Act a Happy 30th Birthday!