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AIDS Project Director's Update
Disappointing ADA Rulings Threaten Protections for Workers With Disabilities
"Catch-22" Created for People Who Are Able to Overcome Their Impairments

June 23, 1999

New York -- Lambda Legal expressed disappointment Wednesday over three United States Supreme Court decisions that substantially limit the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In three separate decisions, the Court ruled Tuesday that under the ADA, a "disability" must be considered in light of any medications or treatments that can control or mitigate it. Lambda participated in friend-of-the-court briefs in all three cases, Albertsons v. Kirkingburg, Sutton v. United Airlines, and Murphy v. United Parcel Service.

Lambda AIDS Project Director Catherine Hanssens said: "In these three cases, the Court focused on whether the plaintiffs were substantially limited, or regarded as substantially limited, in the major life activity of working. Future cases based on other life activities which HIV often affects -- such as the ability to associate freely with other individuals, to get health care, or even drink water out of a faucet -- may produce a better analysis."

Hanssens stressed, "It remains to be seen how the Court will apply the ADA's protections for those 'regarded as' disabled in cases involving highly stigmatized conditions like HIV." She noted that the justices left room for advocates to seek protection under the 'regarded as' prong of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination against people perceived as having a substantially limiting impairment even if this is actually not the case.

"The Court rulings endorse a Catch-22 for many people with disabilities. The Court suggests that the ADA's safeguards against workplace discrimination vanish when people with disabilities find ways to overcome their limitations and make themselves more employable. These rulings strike at the very core of important civil rights protections for people with disabilities."

In Albertsons, a Portland truck driver was dismissed from his job because of his monocular vision, despite having an excellent driving record. In Sutton, twin sisters were denied jobs as pilots for United Airlines even though they successfully compensated for their nearsightedness with corrective lenses, while in Murphy, a mechanic was fired for having severe hypertension.

(Albertsons v. Kirkingburg, No. 98-591; Sutton v. United Airlines, No. 97-1943; and Murphy v. United Parcel Service, No. 97-1992)

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