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Employment group broadens how disabilities are defined
Bob McGarry, executive director of the Disability Resource Center, talks about a computer program that magnifies text for people with visual disabilities. - photo by Tom Reed

A year after the Americans with Disabilities Act was updated, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is looking to bring its regulations in line with the changes.

Last September, then-President George W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act. The main goal of the changes was to broaden the definition of "disability."

For Bob McGarry, executive director of the Disability Resource Center in Gainesville, the changes were a welcome update.

"When most people think about disabilities, they about someone who is physically disabled, but there are some (disabilities) that you can’t see by looking at someone," McGarry said.

At the resource center, McGarry and his staff help disabled clients develop independent living skills. Those skills include a variety of tasks that most people take for granted, such as using a computer and preparing a meal. They also help disabled clients beef up on basic job skills. The changes to EEOC regulations to reflect those of the ADAAA could be of great assistance to many of McGarry’s clients who are working toward employment.

"We have some clients who have developmental disabilities — those people who were born with a disability — but the majority of our clients acquired their disabilities (later in life)," McGarry said.

The ADAAA expanded the definition of "disability" to include impairments such as epilepsy, major depression and bipolar disorder. According to the EEOC, the ADAAA defines a disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, or a record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited a major life activity, or when an entity takes an action prohibited by the ADA based on an actual or perceived impairment."

The amendments also affect the definition of "major life activity" to include major bodily functions like normal cell growth, respiration and circulation.

"Congress recognized that the intent of the ADA was being misread, that its goals were being compromised, and that action had to be taken," said Christine M. Griffin, acting EEOC vice-chairperson, in a prepared statement. "These regulations will shift the focus of the courts away from further narrowing the definition of disability and put it back where Congress intended when the ADA was enacted in 1990."

The EEOC hasn’t officially amended its regulations to coincide with the ADAAA. Before that happens, the commission is encouraging citizens to voice their opinions during a 60-day public comment period that ends Nov. 23.

"(The EEOC) is the wing of government that enforces the disabilities act, so I’m glad they are (considering) changing their regulations to keep in line with the ADAAA," said Justin Pressley, a Gainesville resident.

"I’m physically disabled, but sometimes people have hidden disabilities that require some accommodations for them to be able to work. I think that companies should assist people with certain things to allow them to work — it may not be a lot that they need, it could be small accommodations. Anytime a company can assist a person go to work, it’s a good thing."