This article was published online as “Crippled Logic” on November 7, 2001, in Slate. Dahlia Lithwick, a Slate senior editor, reported on arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Toyota v. Williams. It is reprinted here with permission, © 2001 Slate. The Court had not announced its de­cision when Mouth went to press.

A wise law-school professor once told her advanced constitutional law class that you never win a case on the facts; you win based solely on how you classify them.

If you want to win a free speech case, classify that banned speech as "political speech" (which receives heightened protection), even if the speaker in question is a topless dancer. And if you want to win an Americans With Disabilities Act case, classify carpal tunnel syndrome as a "disability," even if Justice Scalia is firmly of the belief that disability requires a wheelchair or a white cane.

Toyota v. Williams is a case in which almost no facts are in dispute. A Toyota worker by the name of Ella Williams, who has carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis, was unable to perform some of her required assembly-line tasks at the company plant in Georgetown, Ky. Toyota wouldn't transfer her to a less physically demanding quality control job.

Williams' assembly-line job involved gripping a block of wood with a sponge attached to the end and wiping down passing cars with "highlight” oil at the rate of approximately one car per minute, requiring her to keep her hands and arms consistently up around shoulder height over several hours. In addition to offering those of us buried inside the Beltway a fascinating insight into where that glossy shine on your new Camry comes from, the above facts make one wonder how long anyone could do William's job without becoming disabled.

When Toyota refused to accommodate her, Williams sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act, a 1990 statute intended to curb discrimination against the handicapped [sic].

What the parties in this case can't agree on is how to assemble and categorize all these facts as a matter of law. Plaintiff Williams argues that she is clearly "disabled" under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations interpreting the ADA; the district court disagreed with her, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the district court, finding that Williams does have a "disability" for ADA purposes and that Toyota had failed to accommodate her.

So, what is a disability under the ADA? Well, that depends on how you classify the facts. The ADA provides that a disability is: "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual." That leaves the courts to classify such things as what constitutes a "major life activity." (Does watching The Simpsons count? Sex? Sleeping?) The ADA regulations define major life activities as: "caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working." ("Breathing" being a biggie.)

The "manual tasks" provision is at issue in Williams' case because the 6th Circuit held that Williams' inability to perform manual tasks was due to impaired arms, neck, and shoulders that were "sufficiently severe to be like deformed limbs," rendering her disabled for purposes of the Act. Toyota, along with the Bush administration, sought review in the Supreme Court.

Because terms like "disability," "major life activity," and "manual tasks" are so elastic as to be almost infinite, Toyota warns that if the court doesn't clearly define and limit them today, Americans will soon be making ADA claims just because they wear glasses or because, like Williams (who is only 5 feet tall), they are too short to comfortably oil down a new car.

John G. Roberts, a Bush nominee for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing for Toyota today, emphasizes that you can't look at the whole classification of "manual tasks" by scrutinizing a handful of assembly-line activities, such as sponge-gripping. Urging the court to recall that the correct test for a disability is "substantial limit on a major life activity," he argues that the inability to wipe down cars should not be classed in that category.

Justice Stevens expresses concern over the fact that Williams' condition apparently bars her from access to over 50 percent of the labor market. Roberts disputes this, suggesting that she is only barred from between 10 percent to 15 percent of the job market. He says the 6th Circuit "artificially narrowed" the manual task provision, such that it becomes a circular definition, with "manual tasks" meaning any specialized part of one's job one is unable to perform.

O'Connor wonders, wisely, whether looking at "substantial limitations"includes evaluation only of what one can't do, or also of what one can do. Roberts lists the tasks Williams can perform, as a way to prove that she isn't substantially limited: "She can brush her teeth," he says. "She can make breakfast, she can do laundry and clean." Which is great if she's seeking work as an Afghan mail-order bride.

Roberts argues that the 6th Circuit erred in assuming that just because Williams couldn't perform certain tasks (lifting weights of over 20 pounds, operating pneumatic tools, lifting her hands above heart level), she was precluded from household chores. Breyer says he has no problem with the court making such assumptions. "We say you can't be a watchman because you're blind, he says, adding that if Williams can't do her job because she can't lift her hands above her head, he's comfortable assuming she cannot do other major life activities either. Roberts replies that Williams can do household chores, she just can't do repetitive assembly-line jobs (like the one his client was requiring her to do?) so that while Williams is not disabled enough to be disabled, she is still too disabled to do her job.

He adds that "disability" does not turn on your job description. It turns on your ability to walk, see, breathe, and so on. Stevens responds that by shoveling non-work impairments into the classification of disability, Toyota is merely expanding the universe of things someone can do, until by definition the impairment will not be "substantial."

At this point the entire press corp is shaking their wrists and rolling their necks because the frenzied note-taking of thousands of oral arguments is taking a toll. We start looking at each other wondering, silently, who can I sue? Who can I sue?

Barbara McDowell, assistant to the solicitor general, also defends Toyota, arguing that the correct test for "manual functions" is grasping, manipulating, and holding objects (as opposed, it seems, to doing such things above one's head) . Says Stevens: "It's perfectly obvious that a person who can't lift their arms above heart level can't paint ceilings." Adds Scalia: "They'd have to paint floors, presumably."

Again Justice O'Connor asks the question du jour: "How does a court weigh manual tasks? How does a fact finder decide which manual tasks are sufficiently important?"

McDowell replies with a modified Potter Stewart know-it-when-I-see-it test: These are "functions important to everyday life ... like gripping a pen right." Which may be essential to an assistant solicitor general's life, but not all that crucial for, say, a break dancer.

Robert L. Rosenbaum, arguing for Williams, says that she is not precluded from a single assembly-line job, but from a whole range of activities, including recreation, household chores, and living generally.

Rosenbaum gets in trouble trying to distance his own position from that taken by the 6th Circuit. Chief Justice Rehnquist asks him which part of their opinion he disagrees with, laughing, "They ruled for your client." When Justice Kennedy asks if the 6th Circuit's interpolations about disabilities affect a "class of activities," Rosenbaum calls that language "superfluous." "I'll ex that out of the opinion then," says Kennedy, shaking his head. "I thought that was the heart of the opinion."

For Rosenbaum, the heart of this case is that the EEOC includes the inability to perform "manual tasks" in their definition of a major life activity, and that under this definition his client is disabled.

Scalia expresses doubt that Williams' inability to perform certain tasks, for long periods, over shoulder height, constitutes a limitation on manual tasks.

Scalia later adds, "Congress did not think half the population would be covered under the ADA." He says it was for a limited class of people —"the handicapped"— against whom there were, traditionally, feelings of public disfavor.

The fact that Williams can do no overhead work, or use a vibrating or pneumatic tool, does not bring her into the category of "handicapped."

"I can assure you that this is not simply a sore wrist case," Rosenbaum responds.

Again, assuming the classification of "handicapped" goes a long way to assuming the resolution of this case. Rosenbaum urges an individualized inquiry, not into which illness constitutes a disability, but into how any one individual is able to manage life functions. "It's not enough to say she can do a lot of stuff," he says. "The ADA is about working. This is a lawsuit to try to keep a job, a basic, fundamental American value."

Toyota v. Williams is another one of those cases that, with the stroke of a pen (or the swipe of some glossing oil), could change the legal landscape for millions of American workers.

Whether carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculo-skeletal disorders can be disabilities for which workers need to be accommodated or not will have a real impact for millions of people with sore necks and irritable bowels and repetitive strain disorder.

If these conditions are not classified as "disabilities," the ADA is simply not triggered, and your employer needn't find you a more manageable job. If they are, there may be no one left to polish your Celica next year.