Supreme Court Narrows Definition of Disability

January 8, 2002 ( - The Supreme Court has narrowed the boundaries of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In deciding the case between Toyota Motor Corp and assembly line worker Ella Williams, the court ruled that impairments must prevent a person from performing tasks important to daily life, in order to be considered disabled under the ADA.

The high court unanimously overturned a US appeals court decision and sided with Toyota, saying that the lower court used the wrong standard when deciding whether the impairment prevented an employee from completing a manual task at work.
Correct Test

The correct test was to weigh whether the impairments prevented or restricted an individual from performing tasks that are important to most people’s daily lives, according to the high court.

In addition, the impact of the impairment must also be permanent or long term to satisfy the test. The law clearly precluded impairments that interfere in only a minor way with performing manual tasks, according to the court.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the lower court had considered whether the individual could perform manual tasks, repetitive work with hands and arms extended at or above shoulder levels for extended periods, when making the decision. That was not an important part of most people’s daily lives, in O’Connor’s opinion.
Household chores, bathing and brushing one’s teeth were among the essential tasks, and the appeals court should not have disregarded the ability of Williams to do these tasks, according to O’Connor.

Case History

The decision focuses on carpal tunnel syndrome, which affects the hands and wrists of approximately 1 million US workers, including Ella Williams, who developed the syndrome in her wrists and tendonitis in her hands and arms soon after beginning work at the plant in 1990.

The symptoms subsided once she was transferred to another job, but reappeared and intensified when her duties there were later expanded, requiring her to wipe down 60 cars per hour. Her request to have the expanded duties removed was refused and she sued.

Her suit was dismissed when the judge ruled that her physical difficulties did not constitute a disability. However, this was overturned on appeal.