Saturday, January 30, 1999
By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff WriterShortly after he fatally wounded a motorist during a chase on Dec. 21, Pittsburgh police officer Jeffrey Cooperstein told arriving paramedics that he was taking five medications for multiple sclerosis, a debilitating nerve disease.
Does that mean Cooperstein is disabled, as he claimed in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday against the city? Not necessarily.
"Just because you have a disease like MS doesn't mean you have a disability," said Steven Sulentic, a lawyer with the Disabilities Law Project, a local non-profit public interest law firm that handles dozens of cases involving the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which Cooperstein's suit cited.
The ADA requires employers to make "reasonable accommodation" for employees with disabilities, but "the definition of a disability under the ADA is functional, not normative," Sulentic said. "It's based on what you can do, not what your disease is called. That's a crucial distinction."
While it's one the court must address when considering whether a plaintiff is disabled, that might be a complicated task when it comes to MS. Symptoms of this disorder range from numbness and tingling to paralysis and impaired vision.
Damage to the protective sheath around nerve fibers, called myelin, which resembles the plastic insulation around an electrical wire, causes MS. The immune system of people with MS perceives the myelin as foreign material and attacks it, causing scarring, or sclerosis; those hardened patches block brain messages that govern motor skills.
Not all people with MS react to the disease in the same way, however, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Usually the progress of MS takes one of four courses: The mildest form, "benign-sensory," features some sensory symptoms or vision trouble, but these people generally do not have severe long-term disability, according to the society. An attack of symptoms and then partial or total recovery characterizes the second course; the third course involves more frequent cycles of attacks and remissions, with only partial recovery; and the fourth, most severe cycle, which affects only a small percentage of MS patients, features an onset of symptoms that never go into remission.
Court documents haven't made it clear which category Cooperstein fits.
Just as there are different severities of MS, there are different effects on the ability to work and perform other tasks. Anne Mageras, director of the Allegheny County chapter of the MS Society, said there was no way she could come up with a description of what kinds of work schedules or other accommodations are typically provided to people with the disorder. "I can't answer that fairly," she said. "It's just so variable."
Complicating matters is that the ADA is such a relative newcomer to the legal canon that the court rulings made on different cases so far are widely varied, said Sulentic.
"The case law is all over the map, which isn't surprising when you consider
that most legal precedent dates from 16th- and 17th-century common law.
The ADA was enacted in 1990, which is awfully new, and it's going to take
the courts a while to figure out what it can or can't do."