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Supreme Court Wrestles With Disability Issue

April 29, 1999

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Is a condition a disability if it can be corrected? And if so, what's to stop everyone with dentures or eyeglasses from suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act? These are some of the issues the U.S. Supreme Court has been wrestling with this week as they heard ADA-related cases involving a UPS mechanic with high blood pressure and a truck driver blind in one eye.

Vaughn Murphy is asking the justices to let him sue United Parcel Service under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. Murphy's lawyer says the mechanic was fired solely because of high blood pressure, and that constitutes discrimination. UPS' attorney, on the other hand, says because Murphy can bring his blood pressure down with medication, he does not suffer the "limitations" referred to in ADA and therefore cannot be considered disabled under the act. (The act defines a disability as a condition that substantially limits a major life activity.)
In the second case, Albertson's supermarkets fired trucker Hallie Kirkingburg after he failed a test to meet Department of Transportation vision standards. Kirkingburg performed well on a road test although he is almost blind in one eye. He sued Albertson's, saying it discriminated against him by refusing to let him go back to work after he got a federal waiver from the vision standard.
According to published reports, much of the discussion this week centered around whether correctable problems can be considered disabilities.
"Is it then necessary to say everyone who wears false teeth or eyeglasses is also disabled? Asked Justice Stephen G. Breyer. "Is there a way of drawing the line?" Breyer worried that some people with disabilities such as those needing artificial limbs or deaf people with hearing aids could be left out of ADA protection if their disabilities were only viewed in their corrected state.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist asked whether someone would be considered disabled who had an artificial leg but was able to drive.
Justice Antonin Scalia said a worker could have vision problems that are not severe enough to qualify as a disability, but are bad enough that the worker cannot perform a particular job. "There's nothing inconsistent with that at all," he said.
Rulings on both cases, along with a related one brought by two nearsighted airline pilots, are expected by July.

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