Justices take up first of 3 cases seeking to define who is disabled

Federal law is silent on person whose handicap is relieved by treatment

April 28, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, in the midst of a wide-ranging study of the rights of the disabled, got down yesterday to a basic question: Whom did Congress have in mind when it barred discrimination based upon a handicap?

In the first of three hearings -- the two others will be held today -- the justices struggled to define more precisely what Congress meant by disabled.

Rarely does the court hear three cases on the same subject, in the same term and so closely together. But the justices, faced with growing disputes among lower courts on disability issues, have given priority this term to such cases. The court plans decisions in four of them overall.

`A minority'

In writing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, Congress spoke of the 45 million disabled as "a minority" that has long suffered from discrimination.

As a result, several justices wondered yesterday why that group should be understood to include millions of people who may have weak eyesight or other conditions that can be corrected -- say, by eyeglasses, medication or an artificial limb.

The disabilities act does not spell out precisely what impairment constitutes a disability under the law.

"Is it necessary," Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked one lawyer, "to say that everyone who wears false teeth or wears glasses is disabled? Where will we draw the line?"

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that Congress had acted to protect a minority that lacked the power to defend itself against discrimination. Yet, she said, many people who suffer from high-blood pressure "are among the most powerful."

Justice Antonin Scalia, noting that he himself is dependent on his glasses, said the protected group would be far larger than 45 million if people who wear glasses are to be classified as disabled.

The three cases before the court this week raise issues about how to define the disabled.

Each case involves someone who has a physical condition that ordinarily would be considered an impairment. Yet each person has corrected the condition to allow for normal, or nearly normal, functioning.

All claim to be disabled

All three individuals contend that they should be considered disabled because of their uncorrected condition and thus should come under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In each case, their employers insist that the only legitimate test of disability is whether someone remains disabled after his or her impairment has been eased or eliminated.

Yesterday's case involves a truck driver who was fired by United Parcel Service. The driver, Vaughn L. Murphy of Salina, Kan., has high blood pressure, and UPS said his condition does not meet federal safety standards for truck drivers. Murphy takes medicine every day that allows him to do his job normally. His firing, Murphy argued, was motivated by his unmedicated condition.

One of today's cases involves twin sisters who have weakened eyesight and were denied jobs as pilots by United Airlines even though their condition is corrected with eyeglasses or contact lenses.

The other case concerns a truck driver for a grocery chain who has only one eye but who has been given a vision waiver under federal rules because he is deemed able to drive safely.

Lower courts divided

Lower federal courts are divided over whether to judge disability before or after the condition is corrected with drugs or devices.

Yesterday, Stephen R. McAllister of Lawrence, Kan., the lawyer for Murphy, argued that his client is clearly disabled because, without his medicine, "virtually all of his life activities" are limited.

Scalia suggested that the disability rights law draws no distinctions between those -- such as Murphy -- whose condition is relieved with medication and those whose condition is permanently corrected by, say, a replaced hip or a heart bypass. Neither, Scalia suggested, would seem to qualify for protection under the disabilities act.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that people like Murphy may not need to be considered disabled, with or without the correction for their condition, because the disability rights law provides another form of protection.

Under that provision, O'Connor noted, discrimination occurs under the law if a person is mistreated out of a belief that he or she is disabled, whether or not that is true.

The use of that provision, case by case, she said, would root out discrimination in most cases, without having to resolve the more difficult issue of who fits the legal definition of disabled.

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