According to the legislative findings, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 to “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” The purpose of the ADA was to ensure that individuals with disabilities have the same rights as anyone else to be active members of society, whether at work, school, the doctor’s office, or the shopping mall, without disparate treatment on the basis of their real or perceived disabilities. The ADA was expressly intended for interpretation consistent with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, under which coverage on the basis of a disability was broadly defined by the Supreme Court in School Board of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273 (1987).
Over the years, however, several U.S. Supreme Court rulings diluted the protections of the ADA and significantly narrowed the scope of its coverage through increasingly restrictive definitions of “disability.” In multiple decisions, the court’s focus was on whether plaintiffs met a demanding determination of a covered disability under the ADA rather than on whether or not discrimination had occurred. For example, the Court in Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999), found that whether an individual has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity must be determined with consideration of any mitigating measures the individual had taken (such as medications or prosthetics) that decrease a disability’s impact on an individual. Later, in Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), the Court further narrowed the scope of “substantially limits” and “major life activity” by determining that “the terms need to be interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled” and holding that “to be substantially limited in performing manual tasks, an individual must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.”
In passing the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, Congress explicitly rejected the Supreme Court’s reasoning in both Sutton and Toyota, and restored the broader approach to coverage under federal disability antidiscrimination law that the Supreme Court articulated in its application of the Rehabilitation Act in Arline. According to Representative George Miller of California, the Act “restores the proper focus on whether discrimination occurred rather than on whether or not an individual’s impairment qualifies as a disability.”