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President George W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act – An Overview

November 15, 2016 Resources

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most comprehensive federal civil rights statute protecting the rights of people with disabilities. It affects access to employment; state and local government programs and services; access to places of public accommodation such as businesses, transportation, and non-profit service providers; and telecommunications. Believing that the courts and some federal regulations had interpreted the protections afforded by the ADA too narrowly, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) to remedy that situation and restore its original legislative intent.


The original intent of the Congress in enacting the ADA was to have the definition of disability under the ADA interpreted consistently with how courts had applied the definition under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That three-pronged definition provided protections for individuals with physical or mental impairments that substantially limit at least one major life activity; individuals with a history of having such an impairment; or individuals who are regarded or perceived as having such an impairment and treated unfairly on that basis.

The ADAAA was enacted in response to decisions issued by the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower federal courts that narrowed the definition of disability in such a way as to make it increasingly difficult for individuals with epilepsy, diabetes, amputations, various forms of cancer, and a wide range of mental and physical conditions to establish that they had a disability for purposes of the ADA’s protections.  For example, in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999)  the Supreme Court held that people who are able to function well with the help of “mitigating measures,” including medication, prosthetics, diet, hearing aids, etc., should not be considered substantially limited even if they clearly are so in their natural or unmitigated state. In Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), the Supreme Court further indicated that the terms ‘substantially’ and ‘major’ in the definition of disability under the ADA ‘need[ed] to be interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled,’ and that to be substantially limited in performing a major life activity under the ADA ‘an individualmust have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.

Congress also believed that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) regulations, which define the term ‘substantially limits’ as ‘significantly restricted’ do not match up with the Congressional intent when they passed the ADA because they posed “too high a standard.” Accordingly, in enacting the ADAAA, Congress explicitly expressed their expectation that the EEOC will correct its regulatory definition of ‘substantially limits’ as ‘significantly restricted.’

New Rules for the Definition of Disability:

The ADAAA retains the ADA’s basic definition of “disability” as an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. However, it changes the way that these statutory terms should be interpreted in several ways:

  • The definition of disability is to be construed in favor of  broad coverage
  • An impairment that substantially limits one major life activity need not limit other major life activities in order to be considered a disability.
  • An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.
  • When making the determination of disability, mitigating measures shall not be a factor in the determination. The only mitigating measures that can be used are “ordinary eye glasses or contact lenses.”
  • People who are regarded as having a disability are not entitled to reasonable accommodations if their disability is impairment has an actual or expected duration of 6 months or less.
  • The definition of “major life activities” has been expanded to include two non-exhaustive lists: 
    • the first list includes many activities that the EEOC has recognized (e.g., walking) as well as activities that EEOC has not specifically recognized (e.g., reading, bending, and communicating);
    • the second list includes major bodily functions (e.g., “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions”).

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