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The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990

Signing of the ADA
Signing of the ADA
President Bush's Remarks in RealAudio
Audio | Transcript
Passed by Congress in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the nation's first comprehensive civil rights law addressing the needs of people with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications. EEOC was given enforcement authority for Title I of the Act, the employment discrimination provisions. Congress provided that Title I would not take effect for two years in order to allow the Commission time to develop regulations and technical assistance, time to conduct comprehensive public education programs on the new disability law, and time for employers to adjust to the new requirements.

EEOC met this new challenge well in advance of the law's effective date. The Commission conducted 62 public meetings around the country with representatives from disability rights and employer organizations to receive their input in developing regulations for the ADA. Comprehensive regulations and an interpretive appendix were issued in July l991, one year before the effective date of the Act's employment discrimination provisions; between 1991 and 1992, the Commission issued a Technical Assistance Manual which provided practical guidance for employers and persons with disabilities, and developed an intensive ADA training program for EEOC staff.

The complexity of issues arising under the ADA required developing a series of policy guidances designed to clarify and interpret the provisions of the law. Between 1993 and 1999, EEOC issued eight enforcement guidances which have provided interpretations on key ADA issues, including pre-employment inquiries and medical examinations, workers' compensation benefits, psychiatric conditions, the meaning of the term "qualified," and the requirement that employers provide reasonable accommodations. In 1995, a comprehensive chapter of EEOC's Compliance Manual provided a definition of the term "disability."

As always, litigation also became an important vehicle for the Commission to establish its policy positions on the provisions of the ADA. From the Act's effective date through July 2, 2000, the Commission has filed 375 ADA lawsuits, successfully resolving more than 91 percent of the lawsuits filed in district court either by settlement or jury verdict. The Commission also has participated as amicus curiae in 87 cases on issues arising from or connected to the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act (an act that protects federal employees and others connected with the Federal Government from workplace discrimination and which was the precursor of the ADA), or other state disability laws.

Some of the Commission's ADA litigation demonstrate the widespread, and oftentimes overt, discrimination faced by individuals with disabilities. Examples of Commission initiated ADA litigation include:

  • A 1993 consent decree resolving a claim alleging disability-based distinctions in a union's health insurance plan which limited lifetime benefits for AIDS to $50,000, while providing benefits up to $500,000 for other catastrophic conditions. In this case, the defendant company and union agreed to pay $100,000 for medical expenses and damages, and to remove the limit on AIDS coverage retroactive to the ADA's effective date.
  • A 1993 jury verdict finding a security firm had discharged its executive director because he had terminal brain cancer, although he had continued to perform the essential functions of his job. On behalf of the charging party, EEOC secured $220,000 in back pay, compensatory relief, and punitive damages.
  • A 1997 jury verdict finding that Wal-Mart had discriminated by refusing to hire an individual who used a wheelchair because of his disability. As part of its evidence, EEOC introduced a videotape showing the charging party performing many physically challenging activities during his daily life. The jury awarded $8,399 in back pay, $75,000 in compensatory damages, and $3.5 million in punitive damages (later reduced to $225,000 because of the statutory cap on punitive damages).
  • A 1999 jury verdict against Chuck E. Cheese pizza chain, where the Commission alleged that the defendant discriminatorily discharged an employee because of his mental retardation. Although the employee was able to work productively with the aid of a job coach, and the local manager and staff supported his retention, the employee was fired by a regional manager who stated that the company did not employ "those kind of people." Ultimately, EEOC won a jury award of $10,000 in back pay, $70,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress, and a record $13 million in punitive damages (later reduced to $230,000 because of the statutory cap on punitive damages).

Next: Combating New Forms of Age Discrimination

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