The Supreme Court this week certified two cases that question the breadth of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Insofar as the holding of the Court, likely two years off, will affect public attitudes toward this important law and a variety of others, we citizens should start paying attention now.
As the essential facts of the cases are similar, I will focus on one of them, an appeal by Toyota Motor Company of a lower court ruling that held employee Ella Williams, who suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, was entitled to protection under the law in question.
Like many laws that Congress passes, the Americans With Disabilities Act has a noble goal, yet is vague at times. The act prevents employers from discriminating against job applicants with physical disabilities or from discharging employees who develop such disabilities as long as the applicant or employee may fulfill the requirements of the job when provided “reasonable accommodations.”
The law is ambiguous in two respects — in how it defines a physical disability and reasonable accommodations. The law clearly intends to protect those who are blind, hearing impaired and wheelchair-bound. Yet the language implies there may be other disabled people who deserve protection too.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a repetitive motion disorder that inflicts great joint pain. It is my opinion that the Court should not determine CTS qualifies as a disability. The actual effects of CTS, a common disorder that afflicts tens of thousands of Americans in various degrees of severity, are substantially similar to even more common ailments.
My father is an auto mechanic. For almost 30 years, he has spent his days bent over car hoods and working with his hands above his head under a car lift. As a result, he often experiences severe back pain that forces him to stay in bed when he’s at home, and he has taken to wearing a brace just to go to the supermarket to ease the burden of lifting a case of soda. Does his chronic back pain entitle him to disability protection?
Pain is something millions of Americans suffer for a variety of reasons. These Americans have two options — they can change their behavior by switching occupations, or they can carry on, accepting the pain as part of the job. This law was clearly not intended to make that choice an easier one.
If the law is not narrowly construed to protect the truly disabled, the social costs of its implementation to employers would outweigh the economic social benefits. Imposing a cost on employers to employ people who could find employment undoubtedly leaves society in the red. Furthermore, we do not achieve the intangible benefit of helping those who cannot help themselves for which the law was intended.
The harms associated with this eventuality are clear. When society is in the red, it will react negatively to the causes of the deficit. It will become difficult to find political support for other nobly intentioned legislation to help disadvantaged groups.
The second question as to what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” is closely related to the first. Clearly, the law considers it to be an adjustment of productivity expectations and even the acquisition of special equipment.
It is unclear, however, that the relief Williams seeks — reassignment to the mailroom — is a reasonable accommodation. If reassignment were a reasonable accommodation, employers would have to violate their internal seniority systems (as in this case) or even create completely new jobs. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to think that employers should be compelled to predict whether sorting mail would enflame someone’s CTS. And what happens if it does? Should employers then transfer those employees again?
The first harm is this opens the system to abuse. File a lawsuit and get reassigned. Another harm is in forcing companies to violate their own rules like a seniority system. The courts may actually increase corporate America’s opposition to future acts like this one. Given that corporate America speaks loudly on Capitol Hill, their mobilization against such acts is something to be avoided.
The Court should demonstrate restraint. It should treat a law that distinguishes beneficiaries based on disabilities as strictly as it would treat one that distinguishes them based on race or gender. There is clearly a noble state interest in providing the truly disabled access to jobs. But the law should be narrowly tailored to avoid the harms listed here.
Furthermore, the Court should speak with one voice. A 5-4 decision would not protect the noble intentions of the act as solidly as a 9-0 verdict.
But perhaps the real lesson behind all of this is Congress should avoid catch-alls when defining the beneficiaries of special protection. If it did, the courts would have been able to avoid spending precious time considering such frivolous cases.
Phil Fortino is a senior in Saybrook College. This is his last regular column.