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Justices limit the scope of disability law

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WASHINGTON — In a decision that may affect millions of workers and others, the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday narrowed the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, ruling the impairments must prevent a person from performing tasks important to daily life.

In a unanimous decision, the justices said a U.S. appeals court used the wrong standard in considering whether the impairment prevented an employee from doing a specific, job-related manual task.

In the opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the proper test involved whether the impairments prevented or restricted an individual from performing tasks "that are of central importance to most people's daily lives."

O'Connor said the disability definition applied not only to disabled employees but to other provisions of the law dealing with public transportation and public accommodations for people with disabilities.

The decision was a victory for Toyota Motor Corp., which argued the appeals court applied the wrong test by ruling that the law covered an impairment preventing a worker from performing a particular job task.

The case involved a worker, Ella Williams, who suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive strain injury that causes pain in the wrists and hands.

The ruling may affect millions of U.S. workers who suffer repetitive strain injuries or similar impairments that leave them partly disabled. Industry groups have said the case could have a significant impact on a broad range of businesses.

O'Connor said the law clearly precluded impairments that interfere in only a minor way with performing manual tasks.

She said the impact of the impairment must also be permanent or long term.

"It is insufficient for individuals attempting to prove disability status under this test," O'Connor wrote in the 18-page opinion.

Williams worked on an assembly line at a Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky. She developed carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrists and tendinitis in her hands and arms soon after beginning work at the plant in 1990.

She was transferred to another job inspecting cars, which eased the problem. But her work duties later were expanded to include wiping off cars, which caused her health problems to reappear. Williams asked to be reassigned to her former job, and when Toyota refused, she sued.

O'Connor said the appeals court relied on manual tasks, repetitive work with hands and arms extended at or above shoulder levels for extended periods. That was not an important part of most people's daily lives, she said.

Instead, household chores, bathing and brushing one's teeth were among the essential tasks, she said, adding that the appeals court should not have disregarded the ability of Williams to do these tasks.