A Toothless Law Teething

Caleb Nelson

Even though the definition of disability may have been murky in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, UMass Boston’s ADA Compliance Officer Carol DeSouza said that at UMB, the definition of disability has always been clear.

“Here at UMB we have worked hard to accommodate people with disabilities since well before the [1990] ADA was signed into law,” DeSouza said. “We will continue working to do this, and would like to communicate with students and faculty here to improve our program.”

The ADA Amendments Act, signed by President Bush on September 25, will become law January 1, 2009. The new legislation redefines disability, broadening the term to include conditions like bowel, bladder, and concentration problems-previously not considered disabilities by the Act. It also states that ‘mitigating measures’ such as medication and prosthetic limbs should not to be considered when determining whether a person has a disability.

The provisions address several Supreme and lower court ADA interpretations not consistent with the intent of the original law. Because of ‘mitigating measures’ made possible by technology-where individuals can sometimes lessen the burden of their disabilities-courts previously ruled to exclude some people from coverage under the 1990 ADA.

In response, many people with disabilities and organizations that work with them said they were fed up with employers and the court system, which had failed to keep employers accountable.

“The courts have created an absurd Catch-22 by allowing employers to say a person is ‘too disabled’ to do the job but not ‘disabled enough’ to be protected by the law,” read a pamphlet put out by the Consortium for People with Disabilities.

Since 2004, the law has been reviewed, rewritten, and criticized by various institutions including the Department of Justice as defining disability too broadly. Although the amendments are meant to give the ADA some teeth when it is considered in the future by the court system, some people worry that the ADA amendments may cut too deep.

The owner of Narrow Way Plumbing and Heating, a small business in Dorchester, is one of those people. He said that some city codes affected by the 1990 ADA extend beyond necessary limits.

“There are reasonable instances where people can’t comply, or it doesn’t make sense that they should. Going through the court system to demonstrate these exceptions takes a lot of time that small businesses don’t have,” he said.

Because Congress has not been deaf to concerns voiced by business owners since the instatement of the ADA in 1990, the new amendments have several clauses that are meant to prevent the exploitation of the law.

How the courts will interpret these amendments remains to be seen.

Although DeSouza said she sees the importance of understanding the law, she is less concerned with the semantics than with ensuring the UMB disabled community-staff, students, and visitors-gets the services it needs.

DeSouza is currently working with other UMass campuses to standardize their policies under the ADA Amendments Act, including setting up a forum for disability discussion online.

“Other colleges look to UMass Boston as a model when making their policies to accommodate people with disabilities, and we would like to continue to be that model,” DeSouza said.