By Peter T. Kilborn
Published: June 27, 1998
Americans with conditions like diabetes, epilepsy and even infertility and alcohol addiction appear to have won important new protection against discrimination as a result of a Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday, advocates say.
The ruling came in the case of a woman who had H.I.V. but no symptoms of the condition.
Advocates for both employers and people with chronic health conditions interpreted the decision, which came in the Court’s first broad look at the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, as saying that the act protects people without obvious symptoms, just as it covers those who are blind or use wheelchairs.
“They sent a very strong signal to the lower courts saying that the A.D.A. is meant to be interpreted broadly as to who is affected by the act,” said Arlene Mayerson, directing attorney for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif.
Steven Bokat, chief counsel for the United States Chamber of Commerce, said the ruling “just throws the statute wide open.” Roger Pilon, director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies, added: “It’s not a result I’m happy with. We like doors to be opened by consent, not by the force of law.”
On its face, the case looks quite narrow. Sidney Abbott of Bangor, Me., complained that her dentist, Dr. Randon Bragdon, had discriminated against her by refusing to treat her because she has the virus that causes AIDS. While she has no symptoms, she argued that she was covered under the act because she is effectively infertile. She does not want to have children because of the risk of passing on the virus to them.
In a 5-to-4 ruling, the Justices agreed with a Federal appeals court’s ruling that her condition met the act’s definition of disability because it limited a ”major life activity.” The Court did not take the next step and rule that infection by the virus was actually covered by the act, but analysts said the ruling implied that it was.
“This isn’t just about dentists’ chairs,” said Matthew Coles, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s AIDS Project. “It’s about everything the Americans With Disabilities Act covers,” like employment, public accommodations and government services.
Michael Greene, chairman of the American Diabetes Association’s legal advocacy committee, explained the importance of the ruling to people like himself.
“I’ve had insulin-dependent diabetes for 18 years,” he said. “You couldn’t tell from looking at me that I have a noncurable, major disease. In that sense, I’m similar to an H.I.V person who’s non symptomatic.
“This case emphasizes what the A.D.A. is about — that people need to be treated fairly unless the disease really presents or creates an inability to do a job.”
Thus, Mr. Greene said, a worker with diabetes cannot be denied a job or promotion because of an employer’s fear, based on ignorance, that the worker might go into a coma — or an employer’s discomfort with the worker’s need to eat regularly, to test his blood sugar and to give himself insulin shots. The ruling means that the employer must accommodate those needs, he said.
The same applies to the nation’s estimated six million couples who are infertile, said Deborah Wachenheim, director of government affairs for the National Infertility Association in Somerville, Mass.
“The Court defined reproduction as a major life activity,” she said, so an employer who restricts a worker’s need for treatment is guilty of discrimination. She said the decision required employers to accommodate infertile workers with adjustments in their work schedules when they were undergoing fertility treatments.
Mr. Coles, of the A.C.L.U., said the ruling was important in shifting the course of rulings by lower courts. “Most of the courts have been giving extremely technical readings of the act and restricting the reach of the act,” he said.
“Most of the litigation,” Mr. Coles said, “has not focused on whether people could do jobs, but on their disabilities. Yesterday’s decision was striking because it does not take that approach at all.” Because the Americans With Disabilities Act applies to public accommodations and to state and local services, Mary Ann Gleason, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said the ruling also provided protection for homeless people, who often have disabilities arising from mental disorders or substance abuse.
She said she believed that the ruling prohibited landlords from turning away applicants for Government-subsidized housing because of drug or alcohol addiction.