When Jeff Kapche applied for a job as a police officer with the City of San Antonio in 1994, many employers were still grappling with the requirements of a new law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA had been signed into law in 1990 and it outlawed discrimination against people with disabilities, on the job and elsewhere.
Kapche, who lives with type 1 diabetes, argued he could not be denied a job simply because he has diabetes. In 2002, a federal circuit court ruled in Kapche’s favor.
A door was opened.
The need for education about the legal requirements of the ADA was not limited to employers. Around the same time, some large national day care chains denied enrollment to young children with diabetes, believing they couldn’t accommodate their daily diabetes care needs.
At the time, multiple daily injections of insulin was not the standard of care for children with diabetes, so the required care was limited to checking blood glucose levels and treating hypoglycemia with juice. Still, there was great resistance to accommodating children with diabetes, and eventually the Department of Justice stepped in to enforce the law. Another door was opened.
When Kapche and the young children attending these day care programs won their cases, it was because the ADA gave them a way to enforce their rights if they were treated unfairly because of their diabetes. Between 1990 and 1999, many doors that had for years been closed to people with diabetes were pushed open. No longer was it acceptable to keep a worker with diabetes out of a job because of fears about safety. No more could schools and other programs refuse to let people with diabetes participate.
Soon, though, this progress was halted by a series of court decisions. Over time the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of what was considered a disability under the law. Then, the lower courts followed suit.
Starting in 1999 and continuing for the next 10 years, the discrimination cases of people with diabetes were routinely tossed out of court. They were told their diabetes was not a disability under the law—with the maddening result that they could be fired for diabetes and could not challenge it.
Doors started closing once again for people with diabetes. Told their use of insulin or other medications “mitigated,” or lessened, their diabetes, they were deemed not sick enough to be covered by the law that provided the protections against the very treatment they were in court to protest.
In 2008, after years of work by advocates including the American Diabetes Association, Congress recognized the problem with the law and unanimously voted to amend it to restore its original intent. People with diabetes benefitted greatly from the ADA Amendments Act. The new law made clear that diabetes is a disability and people with diabetes are afforded its full protections and remedies.
In recent years the Americans with Disabilities Act has helped childcare providers learn how to accommodate children with diabetes. It has opened up public places such as amusement parks and courthouses and concert venues to people with diabetes. The law has also helped people make inroads in careers as firefighters, law enforcement officers, bus and truck drivers and boat captains, just to name a few. These jobs were once thought off-limits to people with chronic diseases such as diabetes.
So how do people with diabetes feel about the law turning 25? Just ask Jeff Kapche, who now lives in Katy, Texas. He faced discrimination a second time when he fought for the right to be hired as an FBI special agent based on his qualifications, not his diabetes: “Every one of us should be able to follow their dreams, not find doors slammed shut because of a disability. As we celebrate 25 years of the ADA, let’s commit to working even harder to break down barriers for people with diabetes. Our children deserve it.”
Or take it from Mike Greene, a lawyer in Portland, Ore., who also lives with type 1 diabetes. As chair of the Association’s national Board of Directors in the early 1990s, he had a vision for ending discrimination. “Today people with diabetes have many more opportunities because of the Americans with Disabilities Act and its amendments. People with diabetes are finally beginning to achieve what we have dreamed about for decades: an equal opportunity to fully participate in employment and education.”
Kathy Butler, JD, Chair, Legal Advocacy Subcommittee, American Diabetes Association
Katie Hathaway, JD, Managing Director, Legal Advocacy, American Diabetes Association