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What is at stake in redefining what it means to be disabled?

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits the discrimination of individuals with disabilities. This act went a long way in extending more legally enforceable protection for individuals that struggle with disabilities not just here in New Jersey, but around the entire country. A recent settlement involving the application of the ADA is causing some to question what exactly constitutes a disability, and whether that definition should or should not be redefined.

The settlement came about after a university required their students to pay for a meal plan, but the school failed to provide option that accommodated individuals that deal with gluten intolerance or sensitivity. For individuals with celiac disease, eating gluten can lead to immediate discomfort and short-term complications, while long-term digestion of gluten could lead to some cancers. Accordingly, the Department of Justice determined that the ADA is applicable to a situation of this nature.

The school agreed to settle with students that filed for compensatory damages, and the school also agreed to provide gluten- and allergy-free options through the meal plan. This happening has sparked some interesting conversation. Some argue that not forcing students to purchase the plan could alleviate this issue, while others argue that the definition of disability should be reconfigured.

A professor at Johns Hopkins points out the shifting perception of disability. Where once it was perceived to be an individual's body that led to their disability, now many think of the environment as being the disabling factor for not accommodating all individuals, including individuals that are in a wheel chair, that are vision impaired or that are gluten intolerant.

The implications of redefining disability could mean that more are eligible to collect disability benefits. However, some worry those individuals that fall under the present definition of having a disability will have the political gains they have toiled for become less impactful and be largely forgotten.

While there are compelling arguments on both sides, the important thing is that we continue to be sensitive to the needs and struggles of individuals.

Source: Forbes, "What's A Disability? Some Push For The Lines To Be Redrawn," Alice G. Walton, Jan. 25, 2013

  • Our firm has experience assisting individuals in New Jersey seeking to claim benefits. For more information, please refer to our Newark social Security Disability page.

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