Washington is expected to see a highly unusual outbreak of cooperation Wednesday, as two longtime opponents agree on a law that would extend civil rights protection to millions of Americans.
Two groups that have been at odds — people with disabilities and American businesses — have put aside their differences to design a bill that now seems on an improbable fast track through Congress.
Advocates for people with disabilities say that recent court rulings have made the employment protections of the disability civil rights law almost meaningless, especially to people with diabetes, epilepsy, cancer, and mental illness. Last year, a court even ruled that a man with mental retardation was not considered disabled under the law.
So for several years, advocates for people with disabilities have talked about rewriting the civil rights law — even at the risk of giving opponents a chance to weaken it further.
Last year, a version of a bill quickly got support from more than half of the House of Representatives. That forced the business community to negotiate.
Business advocates say employers want to hire qualified workers with disabilities. And businesses benefit when the law is clearly defined. The disability side gave up parts of its original proposal and agreed to a definition of disability that's a little narrower than some disabled people wanted.
But the result is that two House committees are taking up the ADA Restoration Act. The bill's backers hope to give President Bush something he can sign by the end of July.
A Timeline of Disabilities Legislation:
1973 Congress passes Rehabilitation Act, barring discrimination on the basis of disability by federal agencies or employers who get federal funding.
1988 Congress establishes National Council on Disability to advise on all disability issues. NCD writes first draft of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
1990 George H.W. Bush signs the ADA. It defines disability as:
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
- A record of such an impairment
- Being regarded as having such an impairment
1999 Sutton v. United Airlines: Supreme Court rules that ADA does not protect visually impaired pilots since glasses and contact lenses are "mitigating measures" that remove the pilots from the category of disabled.
1999 Murphy v. UPS: Supreme Court holds that because a truck driver's high blood pressure can be controlled by medication, it does not qualify for protection under ADA.
2002 Toyota v. Williams: Supreme Court rules that auto assembly line worker's carpal tunnel syndrome does not warrant accommodation by employers under ADA, affirming that to qualify under the ADA, a disability must "substantially limit major life activities."
2004 NCD issues report saying Supreme Court decisions limit original intent of ADA. Includes draft bill of ADA Restoration Act.
2007 A majority of House representatives back the ADA Restoration Act.
2008 Business and disability communities hammer out a version of the bill that both groups endorse.