07/05/00- Updated 09:10 PM ET
By Frank Santiago, USA TODAY
When President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act 10 years ago, the goal was to protect people who are blind, deaf or in wheelchairs from discrimination for simply having a disability.
What many employers, state civil rights commissions and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have found is that the law also has become a pain in, well, the back.
Back trouble claims have become the largest single impairment alleged by people who file on-the-job discrimination cases. More than 20,000 complaints have been filed during the past decade by people who say they were discriminated against because of back trouble.
That's nearly one in six of all disability complaints. Back trouble cases outnumber complaints by the blind, hearing impaired, the paralyzed and those with heart trouble - combined.
Back-related discrimination complaints are so numerous, they outstrip on-the-job complaints of religious discrimination.
"This is laughable," says Pat Cleary, a vice president for the National Association of Manufacturers, whose organization members say that filings for back pains violate the spirit of a law aimed at ending discrimination.
"It's a far cry from all the things that Martin Luther King stood for," Cleary says.
Inspired by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that identified race, color, national origin, gender and religion as classes of people protected against discrimination, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) added the disabled to the list.
Supporters said that many with disabilities had a right to a job but were kept from the workplace because of myths and prejudice.
However, exactly who and what the ADA should cover has been a tough call for the government, says Thomas D'Agostino, editor of the National Disability Law Reporter newsletter.
"The ADA is not supposed to apply to people with run-of-the-mill problems," he says. "It wasn't meant to open the courthouse door to every Tom, Dick and Harry who had an ingrown toenail."
Many employers say that by allowing people to file for back pain, that is exactly what has happened. But Peggy Mastrione, spokeswoman for the EEOC, which handles ADA employment cases, says that though some back impairment claims have been bogus, many involve real discrimination issues. "The attention that it has gotten is that these are bad cases," she says. "Our overwhelming impression is that these are people who want to work."
The case of Terri Prock is one in point. Prock, who was an "instrument man" calibrating equipment at a Phillips Petroleum plant in Borger, Texas, injured her back on the job. Afterward, she couldn't climb ladders and needed help to lift more than 30 pounds.
However, Prock said, she did essential tasks for several months after
Phillips let her go. She filed an EEOC complaint claiming that she lost her job because the company "regarded her as an individual with a disability."
Phillips said it had eliminated her position in a reorganization.
Prock and the company reached a $104,143 settlement in 1998 that included back pay and money for educational expenses.
About 15% of back cases are settled, according to the EEOC.
Back impairment cases surfaced in 1992, when the ADA law was first enforced. There were 208 cases that year.
By 1993, the number had leaped to 3,600 new cases, a peak.
Recently, the claims have drifted to about 2,300 a year, a drop linked, in part, to tougher court decisions.
The downward trend is likely to continue. Last year, the Supreme Court narrowed the definition of a disability. It said that if an impairment can be controlled with medication, it wasn't a disability.
Mastrione of the EEOC says that filing discrimination complaints claiming a disability is not a path to riches.
"If you want a chance at getting rich, you have a better chance if you go to Atlantic City," she says.
Records show that when disability cases have reached the courts, they overwhelmingly have failed.
A study by the American Bar Association last year revealed that employers win in 92% of the court decisions involving all ADA claims.
"These findings clearly belie the myth that the statutory language and
regulations of the act create an undue burden for employers," the report