- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2002

Most people understand that a disabled person is one who is incapacitated in some significant way. For example, people who cannot walk, or are confined to wheelchairs, and those who are blind or deaf. Such people are indeed handicapped. Having a sore wrist or a strained back those are not disabilities. They may be work-related injuries that render the afflicted person eligible for worker's compensation, or perhaps reassignment to a different type of work. But such persons are not disabled and, thus, not entitled to use the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as cudgel to extract a free or expensive ride on the basis of discrimination against the handicapped. This is the gist of Tuesday's unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling that narrowed the definition of disabled. The limits are justified.

The justices' ruling stemmed from a case involving a Kentucky woman who worked for Toyota. The automaker fired the woman, who has carpal tunnel syndrome, for poor attendance. But the worker claimed she was fired because of her inability to perform certain manual labors, including lifting heavy objects. However, in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the high court said that, while such conditions as carpal tunnel syndrome amount to inconveniences and may impede a worker's ability to handle a specific, work-related task, they do not qualify the person as "disabled." Rather, the person must suffer from a more serious condition or injury that "impairs a major life activity," such as being unable to walk, and the court concluded, "The impairment's impact must also be permanent or long-term."

The opinion is salutary on several levels, mostly because it ought to help put the kibosh on the cavalcade of ludicrous litigation against public as well as private employers incited by the ADA. After the law's passage in 1990 during the first Bush administration, workers with minor physical and mental conditions began suing and winning on the basis of their civil rights being violated. What had been handled by worker's compensation laws and via other means became a major federal brouhaha often diminishing the plight of those who are truly handicapped. While this is not the first time the high court has set boundaries on who is covered by the ADA, this latest decision by the Supreme Court should help put things back on a more even keel.

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