Supreme Court hears first of 3 disabilities test cases

Justices wrestle with definitions of terms in 1990 law


WASHINGTON - The Americans With Disabilities Act defines disability as an impairment that "substantially limits" someone from engaging in one or more "major life activities," phrases that the courts have struggled to understand and apply ever since the law took effect 11 years ago.

A Supreme Court argument placed those essential but vague terms under a microscope yesterday as the justices heard an appeal that raised such questions as:

How serious does a limitation have to be in order to be "substantial?" Is "working" a "major life activity?" Are some conditions so obviously disabling that no proof is needed beyond the diagnosis?

While the answers were not clear by the end of the argument, the justices' determination to come to grips with a statute that many consider the most important civil rights law of the past 25 years was nonetheless evident.

The appeal by Toyota Motor Manufacturing Inc. from a ruling that it failed to meet its legal duty to accommodate the needs of an assembly line worker with carpal tunnel syndrome was the first of three disability act cases the court will hear over the next few months.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Ella Williams, who spent six years on Toyota's assembly line in Georgetown, Ky., was substantially limited in the major life activity of "performing manual tasks" because of her muscle, tendon and ligament problems.

The appeals court, which sits in Cincinnati, said Williams was therefore entitled to a "reasonable accommodation" from Toyota: a job assignment that would not require her to grip tools or to keep her arms extended or raised, as she had to do while wiping and sponging newly painted cars as they moved down the assembly line at the rate of one a minute.

But while Williams, who is 42 years old, could not perform those motions repetitively, she was still able to attend to her personal hygiene, to do household chores and to work in her garden.

Toyota is arguing that she is therefore not disabled within the meaning of the law and that the appeals court misapplied the concept of a substantial limitation by considering only her problems in the workplace rather than her ability to function outside it.

"In looking at `substantial limitation,' do we look at things a person cannot do, or things they can do, or both?" Justice Sandra Day O'Connor asked.

Both, replied John G. Roberts Jr., Toyota's lawyer. He said the law required an examination of "the broad range of everyday tasks we all perform, not just work-related activities."

Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked, "Does this statute intend the court to be so rigid? Isn't the issue just whether this person is hurt badly enough that there are an awful lot of things she can't do that people do in life?"

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