Photo by Anna Sullivan on UnsplashPhoto of the front of the Supreme Court Building on a cloudy day.

Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

Photo of the front of the Supreme Court Building on a cloudy day.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

On July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. The bill sought to address the discrimination long endured by people with disabilities by making it illegal to discriminate against an “otherwise qualified individual” on the basis of disability, and requiring public entities to make “reasonable accommodations.”

The act defined disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” It did not list any further criteria or examples of disabilities. This vagueness was intentional. Congress hoped the law would provide broad coverage to Americans with various disabilities. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Medication and Mitigating Measures

Supreme Court decisions throughout the 1990s and early 2000s narrowed the definition of disability, excluding many people from protection. People with chronic illness were among those impacted by the rigid definition. In what became known as the Sutton Trilogy, the Court held that all courts needed to consider the interventions a person had available to them to minimize symptoms when evaluating whether or not a person was disabled. This meant that someone with a chronic illness, such as IBD, did not qualify as disabled if they took medication to alleviate their most severe symptoms.

Those of us with IBD (or any fluctuating illness for that matter) will immediately recognize the problems with this interpretation. First of all, this firm definition does not account for the unpredictability of most chronic illnesses. Many of us have experienced months, or even years of remission only to crash in a matter of days. Flares are constantly on our minds and something for which we are always prepared. This rigid definition also fails to consider the toll our treatment or medications take on our bodies. Those of us who have our IBD under control with medication or surgery know that maintaining remission is a constant battle. Furthermore, these remedies are accompanied by a plethora of unpleasant side effects that can leave us weak, fatigued, nauseous, and immunosuppressed. Apparently, such side effects did not amount to a disability in the eyes of the Court.

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on UnspashPhoto of a golden scale.

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unspash

Photo of a golden scale.

Major Life Activities

As if this were not enough, the Supreme Court also limited the definition of major life activities. Their definition included a relatively obvious set of abilities such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, hearing, eating, walking, communicating, and thinking. Does this list seem complete to you? It certainly does not seem complete to me. There are myriad factors that can leave a person disabled. What if a person can perform manual tasks but needs to run to the bathroom 20+ times a day? What about someone who can physically eat, but cannot do so without a special diet and immense pain? What is someone who can usually take care of themselves is too fatigued and sore to get out of bed?

I could go on for pages about the disabling impacts of IBD, but you get the idea.

The Court’s interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 fails to take these limitations into consideration. In doing so, they denied legal protection to thousands of people with invisible disabilities.

The ADAAA The Americans with Disabilities Amendment Amendments Act (2008)

Fortunately, Congress recognized the problem caused by this narrow definition of disability and acted to broaden protections. In 2008, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Amendments Act (ADAAA). The ADAAA did not change the ADA’s definition of disability. Instead, it adjusted how “major life activity” and “substantially limits” were determined. First, congress expanded the meaning of everyday activities to include functions of the immune system, digestive system, bowels, cell growth, neurological, and respiratory system. A person with IBD, therefore, qualifies as having an impairment that “substantially limits one or more major activities.” At the very least, IBD impacts the immune system and digestive system.

While revising ADA, Congress also addressed issues surrounding episodic conditions and treatments. The ADAAA holds that a condition is considered a disability as long as it would be debilitating while active. The revised amendment additionally held that ameliorating devices could not be considered when determining one’s disability status. This means that you are protected by ADAAA even if your IBD is in remission or controlled with medicine.

What does this Coverage Mean?

Since digestion and immune function are defined as major life activities, people with IBD are covered by ADA. The ADA requires employers/ schools to make “reasonable accommodations” for “otherwise qualified” students/ employees with disabilities. An otherwise qualified person is a person who can perform the essential requirements of a program with or without accommodations.  A reasonable accommodation is one that does not fundamentally alter the program or pose an undue burden on the institution. If you are interested in learning more about disclosure and reasonable accommodations, stay tuned for Thursday’s blog!

What can we Learn from This?

The history of the Americans with Disabilities Act exposes the danger of trying to define disability. An outsider can never genuinely evaluate the impact of an illness, condition, or impairment on a person. The human body is not that simple. Instead of spending our time arguing about what is and what is not a disability, we should focus on how we can help all people gain access to the best life possible.

*Interested in learning how to obtain reasonable accommodations or what they are? Check back on Thursday when we post Part Two of this blog.


• About The Author
Kate Shannon holds an MA in American Studies and a BA in History and American Studies. She is currently working as a high school special education teaching assistant while taking classes towards an MS in Student Disability Services in Higher Education. When she is not working, Kate loves reading, visiting history museums, practicing the clarinet (a new hobby she picked up after her diagnosis), volunteering with children and animals, and doing yoga. Kate was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis in 2018 and had her colon removed in 2019. She is a j-pouch patient who is extremely grateful for the new life her surgeries gave her.
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