Questions Suggest Narrow Reading of Law
By Joan Biskupic
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 1999; Page A06
As the Supreme Court struggled yesterday with the issue of who should be considered "disabled" under a federal law banning discrimination against workers with handicaps, some of the justices seemed poised to narrowly interpret the landmark statute.
The core question was whether a disability should be evaluated without regard to potential corrective measures such as medicine or glasses. The issue goes to the essence of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act and will ultimately affect how millions of people are treated at work. The three cases under review were initiated by workers who were denied jobs based on their medical conditions but whose employers then claimed they could not sue under the federal law because their impairments were not serious enough.
The cases include twin sisters whose severe nearsightedness kept them from pilot positions with a major airline; a man blind in one eye who lost a position as a truck driver and a mechanic with hypertension who was denied a mechanic's job because his blood pressure exceeded safety standards. All the workers argued they were qualified for the work with the use of glasses, medicine or other compensating measures.
Several justices' comments suggested they would limit the scope of the law that has generated thousands of claims nationwide and conflicting lower court interpretations.
"This statute wasn't meant to apply to all Americans," declared Justice Antonin Scalia, challenging lawyers who said it should cover people with bad eyesight that can be improved with glasses.
Congress referred to a "discrete and insular" minority of people who need protection, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy observed. He and other justices noted that the law's preamble refers to 43 million people with physical or mental disabilities, a number too low to include all the people who wear glasses.
But Justice Stephen G. Breyer countered that even if the law could theoretically safeguard many people with correctable handicaps, it would only affect those who face discrimination on the job. He said he was worried that people who use artificial limbs or hearing aids could not seek redress for discrimination if their impairments were considered only in their corrected state.
The disability act was designed to end discrimination on the job, in housing and at medical facilities and other places that serve the public. Disability can mean "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities" or a person "being regarded as having such impairment."
The court heard two of the cases yesterday and one on Tuesday. The workers in yesterday's cases contend that they are substantially limited in their ability to see but that they nonetheless meet the requirements of the job. Backed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, they say that unless the court allows them to be considered "disabled" they face a Catch-22: denied a position because of their impairment but unable to sue employers because the impairment can be alleviated. Roy T. Englert Jr., lawyer for United Air Lines, argued that twin sisters Karen Sutton and Kimberly Hinton are not "substantially limited" in any life activity. "This statute was designed to protect the disabled," he said, noting that although the sisters failed United's vision standards, they were able to get pilot jobs elsewhere, at a small regional company.
The sisters' lawyer, Van Aaron Hughes, insisted that because the women cannot see without their glasses they are disabled under the law. The court is likely to rule by July on a total of five disability act cases this term, including the three argued this week: Sutton v. United Air Lines, Albertsons v. Kirkingburg and Murphy v. United Parcel Service.
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