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Activists Fight to Rewrite Disabilities Act

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Activists Fight to Rewrite Disabilities Act


Activists Fight to Rewrite Disabilities Act

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This is All Things Considered from NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, it opened a world for people with disabilities. The ADA banned discrimination in the workplace and in public places. It made things like wheelchair ramps and lifts on buses common.

So it may surprise you that disability civil rights groups - groups that fought hard for the ADA - now want Congress to rewrite it, even at the risk of losing some of its protections.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: The issue was over definition. Who's disabled? Somebody who's blind or deaf or a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair. That's pretty obvious. But what about Stephen Orr.

Mr. STEPHEN ORR (Pharmacist, Chadron, Nebraska): I have an insulin pump.

Orr is diabetic.

Mr. ORR: It has a syringe in here that holds insulin and that…

SHAPIRO: Orr shows the small pump. It's about the size of a cell phone. He keeps it attached to his belt, and it sends insulin through a plastic tube that's thinner than spaghetti and threaded under his skin.

With insulin and devices like this, Stephen Orr was able to control his diabetes and keep working at the job he loves - as a pharmacist. Until, that is, he got a new boss at the Wal-Mart in Chadron, Nebraska.

Mr. ORR: Well, when he came in and fired me, he - I asked him why I was being fired. And he told me straight out, he said, because you're diabetic.

Orr used to close his pharmacy for 30 minutes every day at noon and eat lunch. That helped him control his diabetes.

The new boss ordered him to, instead, stay in the pharmacy and eat between helping customers. Orr tried, but his blood glucose levels fell. He got tired easily.

When Orr got fired, he sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mr. ORR: I always felt that if I could've gotten my case heard by a jury that I could probably win.

But a judge threw out his case, agreeing with Wal-Mart that Orr wasn't really disabled. Because with his insulin, he could control his diabetes.

The ADA defines a disability as something that limits a major life activity. The Supreme Court in 1999 said people who could control their conditions with medications and devices like insulin pumps might not be considered disabled.

Earlier this year, a court in Alabama ruled that a man with mental retardation did not count as disabled under the law. That's frustrated disability civil rights groups. They want a new ADA, even though Congress is not so sympathetic to passing civil rights laws anymore. Steny Hoyer is majority leader in the House of Representatives.

Representative STENY HOYER (Democratic, Maryland; Majority Leader, House of Representatives): We are prepared to take those risks, and certainly I don't think we're going to do anything more to undermine the ADA than the courts have done, which we're trying to correct.

Hoyer says Congress always intended the ADA to cover conditions like diabetes, epilepsy, or mental retardation. He was a key proponent of the original bill in 1990, and he's an author of the rewrite.

But business groups worry that any rewrite is likely to broaden who gets called disabled way beyond what was intended by the original ADA.

Mr. RANDY JOHNSON (Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce): Well, the law was passed to cover people who truly had problems pursuing major life activities.

Randy Johnson is with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He says the courts got it right when they tried to make sense of the ADA's broad definition of who is disabled.

Mr. JOHNSON: It wasn't intended to cover people who had minor problems that could be correctable through minor fixes, such as glasses or drugs.

Johnson says big companies are generally satisfied with the way the ADA works now. But if the ADA Restoration Act moves forward, business groups will seek other changes. One might be to force someone who loses a discrimination lawsuit to then pay the attorneys' fees of the business they sued.

Civil rights groups think they can hold off these changes at least in the House of Representatives, where more than half the members now support the bill.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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