Thinking Isn’t A Major Life Activity, Say Courts
This post shares the first in a series of real stories about real Americans with disabilities who have been hurt by court decisions that violate the original intent of the ADA. But, don’t do any thinking when you read it. Because that isn’t a major life activity. The courts have said so, so they must be right. And if you think I’m communicating anything to you via this blog post, then you must be wrong. Because a judge in Alabama said communicating isn’t a major life activity either. And don’t bother talking to anyone about this story. Because, guess what? Social interaction isn’t a major life activity either.
Surely these judges must be right because, ya know, judges are so smart and everything. Or perhaps they were basing their judgment on their own personal experiences. After all, judges evidently don’t do much thinking when it comes to judging cases relating to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. So when they say that thinking isn’t a major life activity, then maybe they mean themselves.
This story is taken from text prepared by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD). The introduction to CCD’s text is posted at ReunifyGally in the entry entitled “Real People, Real Stories: Why We Need ADA Restoration.”
Disability: Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities
Courts: 11th Circuit (AL, FL, GA)
Charles Irvin Littleton, Jr.
Charles Littleton is a 29-year-old man who was diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities as a young child. A high school graduate with a certificate in special education, Charles lives at home with his mother and receives social security benefits. In an effort to work, Charles has been a client of several state agencies and public service organizations, including the Alabama Independent Living Center, that provide vocational assistance to people with disabilities.
In 2003, Charles’ job counselor at the Independent Living Center, helped him get an interview for a position as a cart-pusher at a local Wal-Mart store in Leeds, Alabama. The job counselor asked Wal-Mart if she could accompany Charles in his interview, and the personnel manager agreed. When they got to the store, however, the job counselor was not allowed into the interview. The interview did not go well for Charles and Wal-Mart refused to hire him. According to Wal-Mart, he was not hired because he displayed “poor interpersonal skills” and a lack of “enthusias[m] about working at Wal-Mart.”
Charles felt that he had been discriminated against based on Wal-Mart’s refusal to allow his job counselor to accompany him in the interview as previously agreed, and decided to file a claim under the ADA. But no court ever reached the question of whether Charles was qualified for the job, whether Wal-Mart discriminated against Charles because of his disability, or whether Wal-Mart violated the law by not modifying its policies to allow a job counselor to accompany Charles. Instead, the courts simply ruled that Charles Littleton was not “disabled” under the ADA:
We do not doubt that Littleton has certain limitations because of his mental retardation. In order to qualify as “disabled” under the ADA, however, Littleton has the burden of proving that he actually is . . . substantially limited as to “major life activities” under the ADA.
Noting the Supreme Court’s “demanding standard for qualifying as disabled,” the courts found that “there is no evidence to support Littleton’s necessary contention that his retardation substantially limits him in one or more major life activities.”
Charles first tried to show that he was substantially limited in the major life activities of thinking, learning, communicating, and social interaction. Charles explained that:
● his cognitive ability is (according to his job counselor) comparable to that of an 8-year-old;
● he needed a job counselor during the interview process and on the job with him after hiring, until he became familiar with the routine;
● his own testimony demonstrated “difficulty thinking and communicating” as the courts, themselves, acknowledged ;
● the reason Wal-Mart’s personnel manager originally agreed to allow the job counselor to accompany him to his interview was precisely because of his difficulty communicating and interacting with others; and
● according to the Supreme Court: “[c]linical definitions of mental retardation require not only subaverage intellectual functioning, but also significant limitations in adaptive skills such as communication, self-care, and self-direction . . . [People with mental retardation] by definition  have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand the reactions of others.”
The courts were not persuaded.
“It is unclear whether thinking, communicating and social interaction are ‘major life activities’ under the ADA,” the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit stated. Even assuming that they are, the court relied on Charles’ ability to drive a car as evidence that Charles was not substantially limited in his ability to think. In addition, the appellate court found that “[a]ny difficulty Littleton has with communicating does not appear to be a substantial limitation” since Charles’ mother and job counselor testified that, among other things, Charles is “very verbal.”
The court acknowledged that Charles “is somewhat limited in his ability to learn because of his mental retardation,” but concluded that this did not substantially limit his ability to learn. According to the appellate court, “Littleton is able to read and comprehend and perform various types of jobs.”
Charles also tried to show that he was substantially limited in the major life activity of working. He explained that he receives social security disability benefits, which are granted only to those who are unable to work by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment. He also explained that the only jobs that he ever held involved stocking shelves at supermarkets, custodial work, and a summer job as a recreational aide. He required application assistance and a job coach for all of them. The appellate court concluded that while Charles was not hired for the cart-pusher job, there were other jobs he could do and, therefore, he was not substantially limited in his ability to work.
Back to me now.
So, do you think (oops) that Charles Littleton deserved to get the job? Honestly, I don’t know. I wasn’t in the room during that interview. And I’ve never seen him working as a cart-pusher. But the problem is, Wal-mart doesn’t know either. And neither do the courts. And that’s why we need the ADA Restoration Act: if they’re going to deny Charles Littleton the chance even to try the job, then it ought to be because they know he isn’t right for the position.
Wal-mart, for their part, should have remembered that a job pushing carts doesn’t require much social interaction. So why would a cart pusher need good interaction skills? They could have put him on a probationary period for a few days to see how well he actually worked out in practice before making a final decision. Or at least talked with his job counselor.
The courts, for their part, should have recognized that the ADA was originally intended to be a piece of civil rights legislation. Protection from discrimination on the basis of disability isn’t supposed to be a privilege given only to the few people who can meet an overly rigid definition of who is “disabled.” It is supposed to be a basic civil right for all humanity. Instead of forcing Littleton to “prove” that he meets an impossibly narrow definition of “having a disability,” they should instead have focused on whether Wal-mart gave him a fair chance to demonstrate the skills he has that are actually relevant to the job position.
The purpose of the ADA Restoration Act of 2007 is to force the courts to stop turning away people meant to be covered under the ADA and start judging on the basis of how employers have been treating them. Littleton still wouldn’t have been guaranteed a job under the ADA Restoration Act–because it’s not meant to give anyone a free ticket to a job they don’t deserve. But he could at least have gotten a fairer day in court.
Read the introduction to all of these court case stories at “Real People, Real Stories: Why We Need ADA Restoration.”
Read the second court case story with my comments in the post entitled “Where is Todd’s Day in Court?”
The third case story (with comments from me, of course) is at “Qualified to Work = Disqualification from ADA Protection.”
The fourth is “Give Orr a Break.”
The fifth is entitled “Doing Good Work? You’re Fired!”
The sixth is “Why Everybody Loses Without the ADA Restoration Act.”
The eighth and last court case is “Unfair Precedent Ties Hands of Sympathetic Court: Why McMullin’s Case Highlights Need for ADA Restoration Act“.
I’m taking these stories from a 13-page file of case studies written up by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD); this file is available in both Word and PDF format.
CCD has compiled an excellent collection of materials on the ADA and on the ADA Restoration Act of 2007, so it’s well worth following their link to www.c-c-d.org/ada.
See my continually-updated list of blog entries from all over the web about the ADA Restoration Act of 2007. It’s always available from the top navigation bar: just click “On the ADA Restoration Act.”
Also, don’t miss these links: One group of activists has posted a short list of simple ideas of things you can do to help get the Restoration Act passed. And do check out the ADA Restoration Blog for updates. Or browse through background information on the ADA Restoration Act. Or contact your legislators (just be sure to uncheck the box asking to be added to their action alert email list, unless you want to receive them).