In a precedent setting case regarding the scope of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act), the U.S. Supreme Court found that an individual with a contagious disease is considered a “handicapped individual” and thus is entitled to the protections of the Rehab Act. In this case, an elementary school teacher was fired after suffering a third bout of tuberculosis in a two-year period. The school board based its decision on the fact that, even though the teacher had recovered and was still physically able to teach, her condition was potentially contagious and therefore posed a threat to the health of others. Finding that the contagious effects of a disease cannot be distinguished from the disease’s physical effects on a person, the court concluded that “[a]llowing discrimination based on the contagious effects of a physical impairment would be inconsistent with the basic purpose of § 504, which is to ensure that handicapped individuals are not denied jobs or other benefits because of the prejudiced attitudes or the ignorance of others.” The court went on to explain that the Rehab Act protected those “regarded as” handicapped, as well as those who are actually physically impaired, because people’s fears and misconceptions about disability can be as limiting as an impairment itself. HIV legal advocates have relied heavily on Arline in arguing for the protections of the Rehab Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to shield people from arbitrary exclusion based on fears of infection, including in those cases in which the plaintiff's HIV is largely asymptomatic.
The court’s broad interpretation of the definition of “handicapped” in this case served, at least in part, as the basis for Congress’ passage of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) in 2008. Over the years, several U.S. Supreme Court rulings had diluted the protections of the ADA and significantly narrowed the scope of its coverage through increasingly restrictive definitions of “disability,” the original definition of which in the ADA was based on language from the Rehab Act. The ADAAA restores the broader approach to coverage under federal disability antidiscrimination law that the Supreme Court articulated in its application of the Rehab Act in Arline.