House Passes Final Version of Bill to Update Disabilities Law

September 17, 2008

Washington — The U.S. House of Representatives approved today a bill to clarify who qualifies for protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act, on campuses and elsewhere.

The bill, approved by a voice vote, was passed by the Senate last week. It now awaits President Bush’s signature to become law.

The House had to approve the Senate’s bill (S 3406) because it differed slightly from a version the House passed in June.

The bill’s intent remains the same: to reverse judicial rulings that “have narrowed the broad scope of protection intended to be afforded by the ADA, thus eliminating protection for many individuals whom Congress intended to protect.” And it still expands the list of “major life activities” that a disability must substantially limit for a person to be eligible for protection under the law — adding, for the first time, concentrating and thinking.

But the final version also defines the term “substantially limits” — as “materially restricts.” And it specifies that accommodations requested by disabled people — “including academic requirements in postsecondary education” — can be denied if they fundamentally alter the nature of the goods and services involved. That exception exists under current disability law, but higher-education officials had lobbied for its emphasis in the new bill.

National disability-rights and higher-education associations have supported the bill, as have groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, which represent employers. A compromise measure, it will not broaden coverage under disability law as much as an earlier draft of the legislation had sought to do. —Sara Lipka