New federal law gives disabled workers more rights

A new federal law makes it easier for many disabled workers to request workplace accommodations and to sue for discrimination. The law amends the Americans With Disabilities Act so that it covers more workers. It applies after January 1, 2009. The original ADA protected people with disabilities, and defined a “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

But that left open a question – suppose a worker could treat an impairment with a drug or a medical device, such that with the drug or medical device he or she was no longer limited in a major life activity. Was that worker still “disabled”?

Under the old law, some employees claimed they were caught in a “catch-22,” because although they suffered from serious conditions, such as epilepsy or diabetes, they weren’t covered by the ADA because their medical treatment protected them from being limited in their life activities.

That meant that an employer could legally discriminate against these employees. It also meant that an employer had no obligation to reasonably accommodate their condition in the workplace.

The new law changes this by saying that whether an employee has a disability generally has to be determined without considering any medications or devices that the employee uses.

The law also says that in some cases, workers may be covered by the ADA even if their disability poses only a minor interference with performing their job. As a result of the law, employers should probably expect an uptick in the number of requests for accommodations. Now is a good time for companies to reexamine their workplace policies to make sure they are in compliance with the new law, and perhaps to think more broadly about ways to accommodate workers.