Unsettled Diabetes Discrimination Law

It’s taken a long time, and a case about eyeglasses, to figure out how the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with diabetes.



Part 2 in a 4-part series on diabetes and job discrimination

Recently, we highlighted a court case on how a person with diabetes successfully sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 for being unlawfully barred from employment. There are several other landmark cases that have helped define how the Act can protect people with diabetes from job discrimination.

It is said that the wheels of justice move slow, and we are only just beginning to come to a semi-settled state for what the Act covers and what it doesn’t cover. A lot of lawsuits filed at first under the Act were later appealed on procedural issues, not on the merits of the case. The first merit-based appeals were ruled upon about a decade after the Act first became law.

One of these early important cases is Sutton v. United Airlines, a 1999 United States Supreme Court decision interpreting the Act to decide what is grounds for job disqualification. Seemingly unrelated legal matters often influence each other in the U.S. court system, and such it was that a case involving eyeglasses has had a huge impact on how people with diabetes are viewed under the Act.

After Congress passed the Act in 1990, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) made rules to carry the law into effect. In this case, EEOC regulations were too vague, causing a legal grey area. Basically, the regulations didn’t make clear whether the Act compelled employers to consider a person with a disability for employment only on the basis of that disability, or on the basis of the disability and the tools used (medicine, prosthetics, etc.) to help deal with that disability. It sounds complicated, but this played out in an almost comical way in Sutton.

The claim of discrimination in Sutton arose when twin sisters, both of whom were nearsighted yet also FAA-qualified, applied to work as pilots on international routes for United Airlines. With corrective eyeglasses, each sister had 20/20 or better vision, but the airline required uncorrected visual acuity of 20/100 or better for the position, and they were both dis-invited from their job interviews. They sued under the Act, saying they were barred from employment on the basis of a disability.

The issue on appeal was whether these two job applicants actually had a medical condition which prevented them from engaging in a major life activity. Another question was whether Congress had intended courts to consider measures to mitigate medical conditions to overcome the condition. Because the sisters could use eyeglasses to correct their myopia, the Supreme Court agreed with a lower court ruling that found they didn’t have a disability that was protected under the Act.

However, the case highlighted that the Act needed to be refined to determine who was and who wasn’t covered. This is where diabetes comes up. Justice O’Connor made waves about diabetes when she speculated how people with diabetes might find themselves in legal limbo because of the Act:

“The [EEOC’s approach that individuals be considered in the unmitigated state of their disabilities] would often require courts and employers to speculate about a person’s condition and would, in many cases, force them to make a disability determination based on general information about how an uncorrected impairment usually affects individuals, rather than on the individual’s actual condition. For instance, under this view, courts would almost certainly find all diabetics to be disabled, because if they failed to monitor their blood sugar levels and administer insulin, they would almost certainly be substantially limited in one or more major life activities. A diabetic whose illness does not impair his or her daily activities would therefore be considered disabled simply because he or she has diabetes.” (emphasis added for this article)

A comment in a court opinion such as that is called obiter dictum (said in passing); it’s like a “by the way.” The case doesn’t turn on it. Still, Justice O’Connor was warning Congress and EEOC that the law left many people with manageable disabilities, including people with diabetes, in a legal grey area. Essentially, she was indicating that there wasn’t enough clarity in the Act for courts to consistently make sound rulings in individual cases.

In the next installment, we’ll look at the lobbying effort to fix the Act, and how it now works to protect those whom Congress intended to protect, including people with diabetes.

Insulin Nation extends our appreciation to Daniel B. Korhman, Esq. of the AARP Foundation, for use of litigation and research materials essential to prepare this series.

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Jim Cahill is a former staff writer for Insulin Nation and a former editor of Type 2 nation.