480 U. S. 273
March 3, 1987
A federal law called the Rehabilitation Act prohibited public schools from discriminating against handicapped people if they were otherwise qualified for a position. Gene Arline was fired from her teaching job because of her tuberculosis, which is an infectious disease. Arline and the school board disputed whether an infectious disease like TB could be considered a handicap for the purposes of the Rehabilitation Act.
With Brennan writing, the Court ruled 7-2 that communicable diseases were handicaps by the terms of the statute. Using a broad swath of legislative history and agency interpretation, he showed that diseases were clearly within the law’s definition of handicap. He also rejected the claim that a school board’s discrimination on the basis of a handicap’s contagious effects could be distinguished from discrimination on the basis of the handicap itself. Even so holding, Brennan remanded for further determination regarding whether Arline was “otherwise qualified” for the teaching position, and whether reasonable accommodations could be made to insure the safety of her students.
Rehnquist dissented, and was joined by Scalia. Unlike Brennan, he thought discrimination on the basis of contagiousness could be separated from discrimination on the basis of handicap, and he disputed much of the legislative history that Brennan provided. I’m not sure who’s right, but in all honesty I’m not sure why it matters. Even if Arline was discriminated against based on a handicap, Brennan still agrees that she can be dismissed if that handicap makes her unqualified for the job. It seems like either way the result will almost always be the same. As for Arline, while I have some sympathy for her, trying to continue teaching does seem self-centered. A good mark of humility and maturity is accepting that our weaknesses sometimes do prevent us from safely working in the field we love.