Lawsuits In Wheelchairs Reconsidering the Americans With Disabilities Act

Friday, November 17, 2000
by Marc J. Lane

Posted online at on November 17, 2000.

A truck driver for a supermarket chain was fired because he is nearly blind in one eye and failed to meet federal vision standards for commercial drivers. He turned around and sued the company, which had no choice but to defend itself all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before it was vindicated.

Another truck driver was fired after his epileptic seizures threatened the safety of pedestrians. He sued his employer, too, and was awarded a $5.5-million judgment.

And, as bizarre as it seems, alcoholic ship captains and infectious surgeons are also bringing legal actions against their employers for wrongful discharge.

Over the last 10 years, all these plaintiffs and thousands more, some with legitimate grievances and others just looking for a big payday, have claimed rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and demanded their day in court.

Few would argue with the law's purpose — to ensure that disabled people get a fair shake in hiring and firing decisions and equal access to services and accommodations. And we can all agree that the discrimination people with disabilities face every day can't be tolerated. They deserve full and independent access to everything our society offers everyone else, and the rest of us deserve the benefit of their contributions.

But however well-intentioned the ADA, it has too often become a tool for the misguided and the miscreant to bludgeon employers. What appears to be a common-sense civil rights initiative has spawned thousands of enforcement actions and lawsuits that turn on legal nuances — who does the law cover, when does it apply, and just exactly what does it take to comply? Most cases are found to be meritless or even frivolous. Eventually, they are administratively dismissed or tossed out of court, but not without first taking their toll.

While the law has certainly helped some who have gotten a raw deal, it covers some people for whom special treatment isn't justified. Worse still, too many opportunists file nuisance claims even though they're obviously not covered. All the ensuing controversy is at great cost to business, to consumers and, tragically, to the very people the ADA should really be protecting — those who have physical and mental impairments that substantially limit their activities.

The law bars employers from asking job applicants about their disabilities and inevitably fosters concerns that disabled people may develop health problems or demand expensive accommodations. The ADA forces companies that might hire disabled people to think twice about the prospects of protracted and costly litigation, not to mention bad press. So, sadly, the law may leave employers no practical alternative but reluctantly to turn away disabled, but capable, applicants.

It's tough enough for disabled people to get past the physical and attitudinal barriers that block their path. Let's realize the ADA's promise and find a way for employers and disabled workers to discuss openly — and then to pursue confidently — the extraordinary opportunities they share.

Marc J. Lane is a Chicago lawyer and financial planner and an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University.


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