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The definition of "disability" is among the most frequently litigated issues under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") because the statute protects only individuals with disabilities. The ADA defines a disability, in part, as an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, and the EEOC has issued a regulation further defining the term "substantially limits" for purposes of the Act's employment-related provisions. Although the EEOC's regulation is the product of a valid rulemaking process and is entitled to a high degree of deference under settled administrative law principles, the Supreme Court, in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, recently sidestepped the regulation altogether and applied the Court's own, narrower, interpretation of the term "substantially limits" in assessing whether an employee's difficulty in performing manual tasks rendered her disabled under the ADA.

The Toyota Court did not invalidate the EEOC regulation, but the Cour's sidestep around the EEOC language has effectively and inappropriately narrowed the ADA disability definition, especially now that several circuit courts have applied Toyota's interpretation of "substantially limits" to cases involving a broad range of major life activities. Nevertheless, in cases where the difference between the EEOC's and the Toyota Court's interpretation of "substantially limits" makes all the difference, some hope remains for plaintiffs who wish to assert ADA claims. Because the EEOC regulation remains valid, because Toyota - in some circuits - can still be limited to its facts, and because other prongs of the statutory disability definition may suffice as a source of coverage, individuals whose impairments significantly affect the manner in which they go about their lives may still find ways of invoking the ADA's protections.


Originally published in Wake Forest Law Review and republished here with their permission.