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What's The Meaning?

Show a hearing-impaired applicant to the door and you could be slapped with a lawsuit, right? According to the Supreme Court, the answer lies in the definition of disability.

Colorado twin sisters Karen Sutton and Kimberly Hinton wanted to become commercial airline pilots. But when they applied for pilot positions with United Airlines, the twins met all the basic job requirements except one: Both are severely nearsighted. Although each has 20/20 vision with the aid of her glasses, United still refused to hire them. In response to the airline's decision, the sisters sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against disabled people. But are they really disabled?

That's the question the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider when it took the case, after both the District Court and the Tenth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the airline. And on June 22, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in this case, in addition to two others, all raising the question of exactly who is entitled to ADA protection. In all three cases, the court issued rulings that narrow the definition of disability. According to the rulings, none of the plaintiffs--three with poor eyesight and one with high blood pressure--qualified for protection under the ADA.

So what does this mean for entrepreneurs? The decisions could make life easier for employers fraught with questionable lawsuits over alleged discrimination.

In the Sutton case, the sisters offered two arguments. First, they argued that although otherwise qualified for the job, they were actually disabled because of their eyesight, so the employer was obligated by law to provide reasonable accommodations. Second, they argued that they were "regarded" as disabled, which under the ADA qualifies people for protection just as much as actual disability.

On the first issue, the key question was whether the determination of disability should be made with or without reference to measures taken to mitigate the disability. That is, should the court consider whether the twins are disabled without the aid of their glasses, or with the benefits their glasses provide? The justices noted that the language of the ADA defines a disability as an impairment that "substantially limits one or more major life activities," not that it "could" or "might" limit them. Since the sisters applied for the job with their vision improved by corrective lenses, they did not qualify as disabled. Further, the justices noted, the ADA found that 43 million Americans have one or more physical or mental disability. But if everyone who needed glasses, a hearing aid, heart medication or other corrective device was classified as disabled, the group would include approximately 160 million people.

But were the twins denied employment because they were "regarded" as disabled? The sisters argued that the airline's vision requirement was based on myth and stereotype, and that it wrongly assumed they were substantially limited from the major life activity of working. The court disagreed, noting that the women were precluded from only one type of job, so the employer wasn't operating according to its belief in stereotypes. The ADA allows employers to prefer some physical attributes over others, so long as the discouraged attributes aren't actual disabilities.

Steven C. Bahls, dean of Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, teaches entrepreneurship law. Freelance writer Jane Easter Bahls specializes in business and legal topics.

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This article was originally published in the September 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: What's The Meaning?.

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