Congress passes bill to protect disabled

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The often divided, election-year Congress came together on Wednesday to give final approval to a bill to protect millions of disabled Americans against discrimination in the workplace.

On a voice vote, the House of Representatives approved the measure that was unanimously passed by the Senate last week. The White House said President George W. Bush would sign it into law.

The legislation would reverse U.S. Supreme Court rulings that critics charge narrowed the intent of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and erected new barriers to coverage. The 1990 law was signed by Bush’s father, then President George Bush.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is instrumental in allowing individuals with disabilities to fully participate in our economy and society, and the administration supports efforts to enhance its protections,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

The measure clarifies that Congress intends the Americans with Disabilities Act to be broadly interpreted in requiring employers to make accommodations for the disabled.

It reverses Supreme Court decisions that limited the law. The court ruled, for instance, that mitigating circumstances like medication or a prosthesis make a person ineligible for coverage.

The bill again defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” activities. It also increases the number of activities covered and expands the ability of workers to sue if they believe they are mistreated.

Advocates for the disabled and the business lobby compromised in helping draft the bill, ensuring broad support among Democratic and Republican lawmakers even as they jockeyed ahead of the November 4 congressional elections.

House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer said backers of the initial law “never expected that people with disabilities who worked to mitigate their conditions would have their efforts held against them. But the courts did exactly that.”

“We are here today to bring those millions of our fellow citizens back where they belong: under the protection of the ADA,” Hoyer said.

Camille Olson, a Chicago attorney who represented employers in the drive to craft the bill, said the measure is the result of “the business community and disability advocates coming together to work toward the common goal of meeting the needs of employees without compromising the competitiveness of America’s businesses.”

Nancy Zirkin of The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said, “It’s unusual that business and social justice advocates can hammer out their legislative differences ... but that is exactly what has happened.”

Editing by David Wiessler and Alan Elsner