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ADA Policy Brief Series #14: Supreme Court's ADA Decisions Regarding the Not-Just-One-Job Standard

Tuesday, May 20, 2003
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May 20, 2003

SCOPE AND PURPOSE:

Under the definition of disability in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a condition constitutes a disability if it “substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual” (42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(A)). A prior policy brief in the National Council on Disability’s Righting the ADA series discusses the confusion the Supreme Court has provoked regarding whether working should be recognized as a major life activity. Because, however, regulations implementing the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Senate and House ADA committee reports all explicitly include “working” as a major life activity; and all nine Justices of the Supreme Court had previously discussed working as a major life activity in separate opinions in Bragdon v. Abbott, the lower courts have generally continued to accept that working is a major life activity, either holding outright or assuming, with reservations, that it is. In this policy brief, NCD examines the standard.

For some years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has advanced a restrictive interpretation of the standard that must be met to prove that one is substantially limited in working. The EEOC has taken the position that, to establish a substantial limitation regarding the activity of working, a complainant must demonstrate more than an actual or perceived inability to perform a specific job; it has required ADA plaintiffs to show that they are “significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes…5” The Supreme Court has not explicitly endorsed the EEOC’s position on this issue, but the Court has referred to and quoted the EEOC standard in the circumstances of several ADA cases. This policy brief examines the origin and consequences of the constricted standard imposed by the EEOC, the Court’s statements about the EEOC’s approach, and the implications of the Court’s indecisive but suggestive position on efforts by ADA complainants to demonstrate that they have a substantial limitation on the major life activity of working.

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An official website of the National Council on Disability