The ADA definition of disability
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities from discrimination. Those areas with protection are:
- State and local government services
- Places of public accommodation
The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees. This includes state and local governments. It also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations.
Who does the American with disabilities act protect?
An individual with a disability is a person who:
- Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
- Has a record of such an impairment; or
- Is regarded as having such an impairment.
The ADA measures an impairment as when the condition is most severe. If you are only sometimes impaired, the ADA will look at when your symptoms show the most.
There are two essential parts to having a disability:
- You must have a physical or mental impairment; and
- The impairment must substantially keep you from doing major life activities.
Physical or mental impairments
To have a disability under the ADA, you must have a physical or mental impairment. Not everything that keeps you from doing activities is an impairment. But, the ADA used a broad definition of disability.
A physical impairment is any medical disorder, condition, or loss that affects the body. Some examples:
- Special sense organs
- Respiratory (including speech organs)
A mental impairment is any mental or psychological disorder. Things like intellectual disability, mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.
What qualifies for the ADA?
Here are some examples of physical or mental impairments covered by the ADA:
- AIDS, and its symptoms
- Blindness or other visual impairments
- Cerebral palsy
- Hearing or speech impairments
- Heart Disease
- Migraine Headaches
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscular dystrophy
- Orthopedic impairments
- Complications from Pregnancy
- Thyroid gland disorders
- Loss of body parts
Some temporary, short-term impairments with little or no lasting effects are not qualified. The ADA does not protect against discrimination based on different lifestyles. Being addicted to drugs is not a disability. This applies to unlawful drugs like cocaine and to the abuse of prescription drugs.
Examples of conditions that are not impairments:
- Common cold or the flu
- Sprained joint
- Minor and non-chronic gastrointestinal disorders
- Broken bone that is expected to heal completely
- Compulsive gambling
- Pregnancy (some impairments that are related to pregnancies may qualify. For more information see Pregnancy Discrimination)
- Old age
- Lack of education
- Poor judgment
- Bisexuality or homosexuality
Major life activities
Major life activities include the operation of any major bodily function. For example, things that affect the immune system, bowels, bladder, digestive, endocrine, reproductive functions, etc.
Basic daily functions also count as major life activities. Things like eating, sleeping, standing, walking, speaking, bathing, dressing, shaving, preparing a meal, etc. It also includes problems with learning, reading, thinking, interacting, and working.
The following are not major life activities:
- Caring for others
- Ability to have a relationship
- Grocery shopping
The impairment has to have more than just a small effect on major life activities. It has to keep you from doing these activities substantially. However, the ADA defines ‘substantially limits’ in a broad way that covers as many people as possible.
To be substantial, your impairment does not have to last for a certain amount of time. A condition that lasts for less than six months can also qualify. It depends on the facts of your case. There is no need to go through a lot of medical testing to gather proof. Use all available evidence to show that your condition keeps you from doing major life activities.
Examples of Substantially Limiting Impairments:
- A person who has paraplegia is substantially limited in the major life activity of walking;
- A person who is blind is substantially limited in the major life activity of seeing;
- A person with a developmental disability may be substantially limited in learning.
If you have symptoms that come and go, you may still have a disability. It must substantially keep you from doing a major life activity when it is active. Impairments with symptoms that come and go include:
Epilepsy, asthma, diabetes, major depression, bipolar, and etc. An impairment such as cancer that is in remission is a disability if it may return.
Factors to look at in determining if an impairment is substantially limiting
The set of factors to look at depends on individual cases. Here are some common factors that might be considered:
- The difficulty, effort, or time it takes you to perform a major life activity
- The pain you experience
- The way the impairment affects how a major bodily function operates.
"Working" as a major life activity
The ADA added working to the list of major life activities. Sometimes, an impairment can keep someone from doing some part of a job. But it might not substantially limit any other major life activity. In these situations, the person may be substantially limited in working.
Decisions about working disability should look at how difficult is to perform a broad class of jobs. A "class" of work refers to the nature of the work, like commercial truck driving or assembly line jobs. “Class” also refers to job-related requirements like jobs that require a lot of walking, standing, or heavy lifting. You cannot say you are substantially limited just because you can no longer perform a single specific job.
- A teacher's paranoia did not substantially limit her in "working." It restricted her ability to teach children with disabilities. However, it did not restrict her ability to work as a teacher.
- A woman with a vision impairment was not substantially limited just because the impairment prevented her from being a global pilot. She was still able to work as a regional pilot or a pilot instructor.
Corrective and Mitigating Measures take away or lessen the symptoms of an impairment or condition. These measures include medicines and assistive devices, like eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs, and wheelchairs.
Examples of mitigating measures include:
- Medical equipment and devices
- Prosthetic limbs
- Low vision devices that magnify an image
- Hearing aids
- Mobility devices
- Oxygen therapy equipment
- Use of assistive technology
- Reasonable accommodations
- Behavioral therapy
- Physical therapy
Corrective measures do not disqualify you from the ADA. You should focus on how much you were limited before you used the corrective measure. You can look at what would happen if you stopped using a corrective or mitigating measure.
There is an exception for poor eyesight that can be corrected with ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses. If you wear normal eyeglasses to correct your vision your eyesight is not disabled. Some mitigating measures, like medications, have negative side effects. Negative side effects can be considered in determining whether or not you have a disability.
- High blood pressure medication may cause depression, or asthma effects, or a dry hacking cough that doesn't go away. Such side effects may be considered to decide whether the individual is substantially limited.
- A person with a mental impairment can be disabled under the ADA. This happens if you consider the negative side effects of antipsychotic drugs, such as painful seizures.
Usually it is unnecessary to look at the negative effects. If a person is substantially limited without the treatment, that impairment is still qualified.
Other ways to be considered as having a disability
A record or history of disability
Sometimes, the ADA considers you as having a disability even though there's no substantially limiting impairment. This can occur if you have a record of a substantially limiting impairment.
A record of a substantially limiting impairment means that you have either:
- You do not have a substantially limiting impairment now, but you had one in the past; or
- You have been wrongly classified as having such impairment.
The ADA wants to prevent discrimination because of a history of disability. If your medical records showed that you once had a disability but have now recovered, you are still protected. Even if you never really had the disability, you are covered as long as it's on your records.
You can prove discrimination under this section. You have to show that your employer or school relied on the record that indicates your impairment.
- You have recovered sufficiently to perform all essential functions of the job. But an employer refuses to hire you due to your history of mental illness.
- Your were mistakenly diagnosed as having HIV. A dentist refuses to treat you because of this wrong diagnosis.
Regarded as having an impairment
Someone in public might believe you have a disability, even if you do not. They may treat you unfairly based on any impairment they believe you have. In this situation, you are considered disabled. This is true whether or not you have an substantially limiting impairment.
Anyone may challenge a claim of disability if they believe the impairment is both temporary and minor. A temporary impairment has an actual or expected duration of 6 months or less.
Note: If you are only covered under this "regarded as" section, you cannot get reasonable accommodation.
You may be considered disabled simply because you are denied employment or services. Or benefits due to myths, fears, and stereotypes about disabilities.
- An employee has controlled high blood pressure, which is not substantially limiting. His employer fears that the employee will suffer a heart attack and reassigns the employee.
- A person with a severe burn or scar does not have a disability. She may face discrimination because people assume she does.
Updated: January 2017