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Authors

Ani B. Satz

Abstract

This Article presents a novel theory that courts undermine the purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by implicitly embracing environment-frames that disfavor disability protections. Courts employ environment-frames at two stages of judicial analysis under the Act: the disability eligibility and remedy stages. In determining whether a plaintiff is in the statutorily protected class, courts typically use a broad environment-frame to assess limitation of a "major life activity." The larger the environment-frame, the more likely a court will view an individual as able to perform a major life activity in some portion of her environment and deny her protected class status. By contrast, in the remedy context courts use narrow environment-frames. The smaller the environment-frame (e.g., a cubicle workspace rather than an office building), the greater the likelihood a court will perceive an individual as functional and deny her reasonable accommodation or other modification. Environment-frames thus fragment the human experience of disability, by creating a disconnection between the lived and the legally recognized aspects of disability. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (AAA), fails to address these problems. The AAA broadens the definition of disability, but it does not examine or change the environments in which courts assess an individual’s ability to function. I propose a two-part solution to address the problems of environmentframing. First, courts must adopt broad environment-frames for both eligibility and remedy purposes. To determine eligibility, courts should assess individuals with functional impairments in a broad environment that includes workplace, home, and other environments in the civic and social realms. Similarly, individuals requesting accommodation or other modification should have their claims assessed within a broad environment that captures the nature of what they are trying to access, e.g., a place of employment rather than an office space. Second, courts must interpret an individual’s ability to function in a more holistic or complete manner by gaining a better understanding of the effects of impairment throughout a broad environment. To ensure that the ability to function in some portion of a broad environment does not undermine disability status, I suggest a method of assessment similar to the one employed in Social Security disability benefits cases. Despite the Social Security Act’s relatively restrictive definition of disability, courts employ a more favorable assessment of a broad environment that does not limit eligibility for benefits in most cases. A holistic view of functioning within a broad environment would also afford more meaningful reasonable accommodation or other modification.

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