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Defining Disabilities

April 28, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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PHIL PONCE: At issue is a law called the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was meant to give people with disabilities equal access to jobs, government services, and public accommodations.

The ADA, as it’s known, defines disability in part as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Here with more on today’s arguments before the Supreme Court is Jan Crawford Greenburg, NewsHour regular and national legal affairs correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

PHIL PONCE: Jan, there were two cases heard today, one yesterday. Tell us a little bit about some of the physical problems that the parties had who were involved in these cases, first of all.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Sure. Yesterday’s case involved a mechanic who had to drive trucks who had high blood pressure. The first case today involved two sisters, twin sisters who had poor vision, yet wanted to be pilots for United Airlines.

PHIL PONCE: They were nearsighted, right?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right.

PHIL PONCE: They can’t see distances without correction.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right, they wore glasses. But they still could not be pilots because they didn’t meet United’s vision requirements in their uncorrected state. And then the last case of the day, the last case argued this term, involved another truck driver who could only see in one eye; he was legally blind in the other eye.

PHIL PONCE: And did the companies all admit yes, that is the reason, United is admitting, yes, the reason we didn’t hire these two women as pilots was because they had poor vision and the other companies likewise? There’s no argument about that?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. And they say that they have a very valid reason for not doing so, that there are safety concerns. And that’s why they have these requirements, these physical requirements in place.

PHIL PONCE: Okay. We know a little bit about the people. What is the key issue involved in the cases?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The basic issues in the three cases under the ADA being argued this week is really a threshold issue under the law, what does it mean to be disabled? What does it mean to be regarded as having a disability? And that caused the Justices many, many problems as they grappled with that issue. It may sound simple — what does it mean to be disabled — but does that include people who wear eyeglasses, or have false teeth or need prosthetic devices, or who have had surgery to replace a hip, or a heart valve? All these questions stymied the Justices and caused quite a lot of confusion.

PHIL PONCE: So basically the issue is, what is a disability and who’s covered by the Act?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s correct.

PHIL PONCE: And what is the advantage of being covered by the Act? What remedies does it give you if you are somebody who has a disability under the law? What rights does that give you?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, if you can show that you have a disability and that you’re qualified for the job that you’re seeking with or without some reasonable accommodation, then you could say that you can’t be fired, or that you should be able to get the job, you can’t be demoted and you possibly would be entitled to back pay, so very important remedies for people discriminated against because of their disabilities.

PHIL PONCE: So in the case of the two women who wanted to be pilots for United Airlines who were nearsighted, they said yes, because we are nearsighted we are covered by the ADA and, therefore, what, we were discriminated against in not getting those pilot jobs?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. They said we’re nearsighted, we’re disabled, but we can use these corrective measures and, therefore, we’re qualified to be pilots for United, so United cannot discriminate against us. And that’s a concern in the case yesterday as well, the corrective measures, because the mechanic/truck driver said he could correct his impairment by taking blood pressure medication.

Now, the companies would argue it from a different perspective. They say, no, if you can correct your impairment with medicine or eyeglasses, then you’re not disabled at all, because you’re not, as you refer to in the definition, substantially limited in a major life activity. So therefore, you’re not covered by the Act, and we don’t have to hire you because of your impairment.

PHIL PONCE: In other words, the companies are saying there are legitimate reasons for us to have these physical requirements for different positions, and even though you may have this one physical characteristic, that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to protection under the ADA, is that the point they’re making?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yes. That’s basically it.

PHIL PONCE: So, what happened in court today? What kinds of questions and comments did the Justices have to these arguments?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, as I said, I mean, it started yesterday, the confusion came right away because the law, though it may sound somewhat straightforward, is also pretty ambiguous. Justice Kennedy, for example, said it’s metaphysical, and we’ve been here for two days. Justice Souter said he -

PHIL PONCE: And I never did figure out in college what metaphysical meant, so I won’t ask you.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Okay. Justice Souter said that he was at sea to come up with a way that they’re going to find answers to some of these questions. Justice Scalia repeatedly said he didn’t know how the court was going to get some kind of workable framework. So by the end of the day today, the Justices suggested the answers to these questions were almost as illusive as they were when they took up this issue yesterday.

PHIL PONCE: Is it — do you think — might it come down in the Justices’ mind — did the arguments revolve around congressional intent? Did any of the lawyers talk about or argue about what Congress intended?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The employees, lawyers for the employees, as well as the Justice Department, argued that the law should be applied very broadly to take in many Americans who have a disability that substantially limits them, who need glasses because they can’t see across the room, that Congress intended for the law to go beyond the stereotypes that some people may have of, you know, traditional disabled people.

PHIL PONCE: And the lawyers for the employers, what was their argument?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The flip side; that it should be applied very narrowly. The congressional findings noted that there are 43 million disabled people in America. So they say that right there is proof they didn’t intend for it to cover all nearsighted people; that would be more than 100 million people right there. So they said, no, apply the law narrowly, and, you know, that just doesn’t cover most Americans.

And they got some support for that suggestion. Justice Scalia, for example, said he just doesn’t see it, he doesn’t see how the law can be said to cover most Americans, that that may be comforting, but that’s just not the case here. Now, Justice Breyer made the point, well, you know, so what, so what if it covers all Americans, a lot of the discrimination statutes cover a lot of people — black people, white people, men and women all can sue if they’ve been discriminated against because their sex, you know, their race.

So why not allow disabled people the same thing, and then when they get into the courtroom, we’ll see if they actually have been discriminated against if they’re qualified for these jobs.

PHIL PONCE: In other words, it sounds like it could come down to a question of how broadly the definition is going to -

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right.

PHIL PONCE: — be interpreted or how narrowly. When is the decision expected?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, today was the last argument of the term, they’re going to spend the next two months writing opinions on all of these cases and with something by the end of June.

PHIL PONCE: Jan Crawford Greenburg, thank you very much.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thank you.