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Public Statements

ADA Amendments Act of 2008

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

ADA AMENDMENTS ACT OF 2008 -- (Senate - September 11, 2008)


Mr. KENNEDY. Madam President, I strongly support the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, and I commend Senator Harkin and Senator Hatch for their leadership on this important measure to restore the vitality of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which has jurisdiction over this legislation, I know too well how urgently this legislation is needed to protect the civil rights of persons with disabilities.

America's strength and success as a nation have been fueled by its founding promise of equal justice for all. Yet for much of the Nation's history, persons with disabilities were treated as people who needed charity, not opportunity. Out of ignorance, the Nation accepted discrimination for decades, and yielded to fear and prejudice.

In the 35 years since passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which outlawed discrimination against persons with disabilities in programs and activities receiving Federal funds, our Nation has made great progress toward making the promise of equal justice a reality for such persons. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 continued this progress by extending housing protections to persons with disabilities, but it was the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 which opened wide the doors of opportunity by providing long-overdue protections against job discrimination and greater access to public accommodations. The 1990 act was a giant step toward guaranteeing that persons with disabilities would be full participants in the American dream.

Unfortunately, however, in many job discrimination cases, the courts have interpreted the act so narrowly that many of us who were original sponsors of the act barely recognize it today. Courts have ruled that many of the very persons the act was designed to protect are not covered by its provisions. These decisions have improperly shifted the emphasis in ADA cases away from the central question of whether discrimination occurred.

The bill we are considering today reaffirms Congress's intent that the courts should interpret the ADA broadly to fulfill its important purpose. In deciding whether to grant relief under the act, courts should respect the act's goal of expanding opportunities for persons with disabilities.

In particular, courts have narrowed the first prong of the ADA's definition of disability, which defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that ``substantially limits'' one or more life activities. As explained in the statement of managers, the bill seeks to remedy this problem by clearly rejecting the reasoning of cases like Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams in 2002, in which the Supreme Court held that this prong of the definition must be ``be interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled,'' and that ``substantially limits'' means ``prevents or severely restricts.''

The bill also rejects the Supreme Court's earlier holding in Sutton v. United Air Lines, which also imposed too heavy a burden on plaintiffs seeking relief under the act.

Although the House of Representatives' consideration of the pending legislation was of significant assistance to the Senate on this issue, in one important respect the Senate diverged from the reasoning expressed in the reports of the committees of jurisdiction in the House. The House version of the bill defined ``substantially limits'' as ``materially restricts,'' and the House Committee reports explained this term with reference to a spectrum or range of severity. The term ``materially restricts'' in the House bill and these portions of the House reports set an inappropriately high standard for the determination of whether an individual is substantially limited in a major life activity and pose the risk of confusing the threshold determination of who is covered by the act. Fortunately, our Senate bill avoids this problem and provides the broader coverage needed to correct the excessively restrictive and unintended interpretation in the litigation.

In addition, the bill's findings and purposes section states that ``the question of whether an individual's impairment is a disability under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis.'' This statement makes clear that courts normally should not require an extensive examination of an individual's disability in cases under the ADA. In such cases the main focus should be on whether discrimination has occurred, not on the threshold issue of whether an individual's impairment qualifies as a disability. As the Senate Statement of Managers explains, courts should not interpret this statement to constrain plaintiffs from offering evidence needed to establish that their impairment is substantially limiting. Of course, this statement in the bill does not impose any limitation on what evidence the party with the burden of proof on the issue of disability may offer. Indeed, such a position would be inconsistent with clearly established evidentiary and procedural rules, and constitutional requirements as well. The party with the burden of proving disability is free to introduce all the evidence of disability that he or she believes is appropriate, consistent with evidentiary and procedural rules. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated in a related context, the plaintiff's evidentiary burden is minimal.

Our goal in this bill is to greatly enhance the protections against discrimination for persons with disabilities, and I hope these clarifications will avoid further confusion in future litigation. I am proud to join with Senators Harkin and Hatch and the other sponsors in support of the act, and I strongly urge the Senate to approve it.

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