Why Everybody Loses Without the ADA Restoration Act
The story of Laura Sorensen (see further below) helps to highlight why all of us lose when the courts fail to interpret the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 as its authors originally intended–whether we’re Deaf or hearing, have MS or not, or have disabilities or not. The story of her court case also helps highlight why more of us, including within the Deaf community, should be supporting the ADA Restoration Act of 2007.
I’ve never met Laura Sorenson–but given that she got an award for her work in nursing, she must be pretty darn good at her job. If I were living in Utah and suddenly needed helicopter ambulance service, I’d want someone like her on that helicopter ready to take care of me.
Her hospital claims it isn’t safe any more to let her be a flight nurse because she has MS. But this makes no sense: doctors have cleared her to fly, and she even did a stint as a flight nurse in Arizonia after her diagnosis. Her award for nursing also came after her MS diagnosis. But when Sorenson took her employers to court, the same people who claimed she was too disabled to work as a flight nurse suddenly decided she wasn’t disabled after all and therefore shouldn’t be protected by the ADA. In other words, her employers wanted to have it two ways. And the courts chose to let them: her case was dismissed, not because there were no merits to it, not because it was judged that her employers were justified in grounding her, but on a pure technicality in defining what “disability” means.
Could the same thing happen to a Deaf person? So far I haven’t read about a court case like this one specifically involving a Deaf person. But I have two points to make about this. One: if the courts interpret the ADA in a way that weakens it for one group of people that could weaken it for all of us–including Deaf people. Two: when discrimination against ANY Deaf or disabled person is allowed then ALL of us get hurt. It wasn’t just Laura Sorenson who lost in this case. All the patients she could have helped also lost–whether Deaf or hearing.
I know for myself, if my life depends on someone else doing their job right, then the only thing I want is the most qualified person on the job. I don’t care if they’re Deaf or hearing, if they can sign or not (if I’m sick enough I might not even be conscious anyway), or if they have a disability or not. Why should I, or any other Deaf or hearing person, be deprived of the very best qualified services because the best qualified person was discriminated against? Someone like Laura Sorenson.
Read her story below. Then follow some of the links listed after the story to learn more about the ADA Restoration Act, how it is meant to stop cases like this one, and how ordinary people like YOU can get involved. If nothing else, please do write a letter to YOUR senators!
This story is taken from text prepared by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD).
Disability: Multiple Sclerosis
Court: 10 th Circuit 1999 [CO, KS, NM, OK, UT, WY]
Laura Sorensen started working as a clinical nurse for the University of Utah Hospital in 1990.(29) A year later, the Hospital hired her to work as a flight nurse for its helicopter ambulance service.
Two years into her dream job, Laura was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and hospitalized for five days.
Laura’s physician cleared her to return to work within two weeks, but Laura’s supervisors initially refused to allow her to return as a flight nurse. Laura agreed to return as a regular nurse for an evaluation period, and worked successfully in the burn unit, the surgical intensive care unit, and emergency room. After a two-month evaluation period, a neurologist examined Laura and cleared her to return to work as a flight nurse.
Laura’s AirMed supervisor still refused to allow Laura to return in the flight nurse position because the neurologist could not guarantee that Laura would never experience symptoms related to her multiple sclerosis while on duty. Laura’s AirMed supervisor felt that this justified his decision to keep Laura grounded indefinitely.(30)
Laura continued working for the Hospital for a few more months, resigning after it became clear that she would never be allowed to work as a flight nurse.
Laura believed, consistent with her evaluating neurologist, that she could perform the flight nurse job safely. Because she felt that she was demoted because of unjustified fears about her disability, Laura decided to challenge the Hospital’s decision.(31)
The Hospital responded that Laura’s multiple sclerosis did not qualify as a “disability” under the ADA, even though it was the sole reason that Laura was barred from working as a flight nurse.
The court agreed.
According to the court, even though Laura “could not perform any life activities during her hospitalization,” her hospital stay had not been permanent or long-term enough to qualify Laura as disabled under the ADA.(32) And even though the Hospital based its decision on Laura’s multiple sclerosis, its refusal to hire her in the “single job” of flight nurse was not enough to show that it regarded her as disabled.(33)
In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune following the court’s dismissal of her case, Laura explained that “[t]he university took a red paintbrush and put a scarlet ‘MS’ on my forehead. I was a disease from that point on. I can do that job—that’s the bottom line.”(34)
Laura proved this point by leaving Utah briefly to work as a flight nurse in Arizona. Upon her return to Utah, Laura won the Utah Emergency Room Nurse of the Year Award,(35) but still has not been allowed to work as a flight nurse in her home state.
(29) Sorensen v. University of Utah Hosp., 194 F.3d 1084 (10th Cir. 1999).
(31) Id. at 1086.
(32) Id. at 1087-88.
(33) Id. at 1088.
(34) Sheila R. McCann, Former Flight Nurse With MS Frustrated by Disability Ruling, SALT LAKE TRIB., Apr. 6, 1998, at D1.
The introduction to CCD’s text is posted at ReunifyGally in the entry entitled “Real People, Real Stories: Why We Need ADA Restoration.”
Also see the first case story I posted, entitled “Thinking isn’t a Major Life Activity, Say Courts.”
The second case story is in the entry entitled “Where is Todd’s Day in Court?”
The third case story is entitled “Qualified to Work = Disqualification for ADA Protection”
The fourth is “Give Orr a Break.”
The fifth is “Doing Good Work? You’re Fired!.”
The seventh, after this one, is “A Hearing Woman, but a Deaf Story: Why We Need 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“.
PLEASE make an ASL vlog (or a written blog, if you like) on the ADA Restoration Act! If you do, I’d be delighted to link to you!
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. If you’re still new to the subject, this can help you understand why the ADA Restoration Act is critical to pass and why we should all be involved.
See my continually-updated list of blog entries from all over the web about the ADA Restoration Act of 2007, always available from the top navigation bar at “On the ADA Restoration Act.”
See examples of specific court cases that have served to undermine the spirit and intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act: click on “ADA Court Cases” under “categories” in the right-hand navigation bar. I still have two more ADA Court Cases in the coming few weeks.
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. It is particularly important to write letters to your senators.