The Census 2000 Summary reports that the American workforce includes 18.6 million people with disabilities between the ages of 16 to 64. That number certainly will increase as the “Baby Boomer” population continues to age and the financial stresses of the American economy in the post-Madoff era forces aging adults to remain in the workforce. Of even greater significance is a major change in federal law that went virtually unnoticed in the mainstream media but which affects the legal responsibilities of millions of employers. Effective January 1, 2009, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal law that requires employers to implement “reasonable accommodations” for disabled employees to enable those employees to work. The ADA amendments significantly expanded the number of employees who qualify as “disabled” by expanding the definition of disabled to include any individual with an impairment of any bodily system (i.e. circulatory system for individuals with high blood pressure) and prohibiting the consideration of “mitigating measures” such as medication in determining whether an individual is substantially limited in their major life activities and thereby entitled to protection under the ADA.
On March 24, 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated the regulations that the EEOC uses to interpret the ADA. The EEOC is the agency charged with enforcing the ADA and other laws against discrimination. The EEOC has stated that as a result of its new ADA regulations, it will be “much easier for individuals seeking the law’s protection to demonstrate that they meet the definition of ‘disability.'” The importance of the ADA in helping individuals with disabilities to have equal access to jobs and fair treatment in the workplace is indisputable. Although the ADA amendments and the new EEOC regulations are well intentioned in their effort to cover as many individuals as possible, the ADA and new EEOC regulations have no effective “checks and balances” to guide employers in dealing with issues of determining which individuals are disabled and how employers must accommodate those disabilities. Congress and the EEOC have made it clear that they expect employers to err on the side of including all individuals with medical conditions that impair major life activities as “disabled.” However, in their efforts to provide broad coverage to individuals, Congress and the EEOC have failed to provide definitions, regulations, and guidelines that can be implemented in any realistic way in the workplace. The unfortunate end result may be to increase frustrations of employers and disabled employees alike. Clearer guidelines would help establish realistic expectations of all parties and enable employers and employees to work in a productive manner.