The ADA definition of disability
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities from discrimination in several important areas. Those areas include:
- State and local government services
- Places of public accommodation
Who does the American with disabilities act protect? Under the ADA, you have a disability if you have at least one of the following:
- A physical or mental impairment, or condition, that substantially limits, or gets in the way of your ability to do any major life activities;
- Documents or records that say you have an impairment; or
- People see you as having such an impairment.
The ADA measures an impairment as when the condition is most severe. So, if you are only sometimes impaired, the ADA looks at when the symptoms of your disability show the clearest.
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 as much as possible.
A physical impairment is any medical disorder, condition, disfigurement or loss that affects the body, such as:
- Special sense organs
- Respiratory (including speech organs)
A mental impairment is any mental or psychological disorder, such as intellectual disability, formerly mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.
What qualifies for American with Disabilities Act? We cannot include a list of all the defined conditions the ADA considers a physical or mental impairment, but here are some examples:
- 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 usually are not disabilities. Also, the ADA does not protect against discrimination based on environmental conditions or different lifestyles. Being addicted to drugs is not a disability, which 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
To claim ADA protection, you must decide whether you have a physical or mental impairment and whether that impairment substantially keeps you from doing major life activities. Most people are unable to show they are impaired or that their condition substantially limits their ability to do things.
Employers and employment agencies that have at least 15 employees, and labor organizations
The covered entity must decide as to whether you have a physical or mental impairment, and whether that impairment is substantially limiting. In many cases, however, entities fail to make this assessment.
Substantial limit on a major life activity
To have a disability under the ADA, your physical or mental impairment, or condition, must substantially limit one or more of your major life activities.
Major life activities
Major life activities include the operation of any major bodily function, like functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive (procreation) functions, among others.
Function such as bathing, dressing, shaving, preparing a meal, going to the restroom, performing manual tasks, eating, sleeping, standing, walking, lifting, reaching, bending, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, 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 in favor of covering the person claiming discrimination.
To be substantial, an impairment does not need to keep you from severely doing a major life activity. Also, your impairment does not have to last for a certain amount of time. A condition that lasts for less than six months can be substantially limiting. It depends on the person, and there is no need to go through a lot of medical testing to gather proof. But you may use whatever evidence you can to show that your condition substantially keeps you from doing major life activities.
The facts of your case will determine whether or not your major life activities are substantially limited.
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 the major life activity of learning; and
- A person with a traumatic brain injury is substantially limited in the major life activities of "caring for oneself," learning and working
If your impairment has symptoms that come and go or are in remission, you have a disability if it substantially keeps you from doing a major life activity when it is active. So knowing if you are protected under the ADA depends on how substantially your condition keeps you from doing major life activities when you experience symptoms.
Impairments whose symptoms come and include epilepsy, hypertension, asthma, diabetes, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. An impairment such as cancer that is in remission is also a disability if it may return in a substantially limiting form.
The ADA list examples of impairments that should easily be considered disabilities. These impairments include: deafness, blindness, intellectual disability, formerly known as mental retardation, partially or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV infection, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.
Factors to look at in determining if an impairment is substantially limiting
Sometimes it is important to look at the condition, manner or how long it takes you to do a major life activity to know if your impairment is substantially limiting. This means that in some cases, you will need to look at the difficulty, effort, or time it takes you to perform a major life activity, the pain you experience, or the way the impairment affects how a major bodily function operates.
But for some conditions, you may not need to look at these factors to know whether the impairment substantially limits a major life activity.
"Working" as a major life activity
An impairment might keep someone from being able to do some part of a job, but may not substantially limit any other major life activity. In these situations, the person may be substantially limited in working. However, there should be no need to determine if someone is substantially limited in working because the ADA added to the list of major life activities. This has made it easier to find that someone is substantially limited in performing any major life activity.
Decisions about substantially limiting someone’s ability to work should take into account 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. However, you cannot prove that you are substantially limited in working just by showing that you can no longer perform certain parts of a single specific job.
- A teacher's paranoia did not substantially limit her in "working." Even though it significantly restricted her ability to teach children with severe developmental disabilities, it did not restrict her ability to work as a teacher.
- A woman with a severe vision impairment was not substantially limited in the major life activity of "working" because the impairment prevented her from the job of a global pilot, where 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
The positive effects of using any corrective or mitigating measures do not disqualify you from having a disability under the ADA. What is important is if you would be substantially limited in performing a major life activity without the corrective measure. You should focus on how much you were limited before you used the corrective measure. You can also 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 are substantially limited in seeing and you wear glasses or contacts, you are not disabled for that reason.
Some mitigating measures, like medications, have negative side effects. If you experience negative side effects, those bad 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 in determining whether the individual is substantially limited in a major life activity.
- A person with a mental impairment can be considered to be disabled under the ADA by taking into consideration the negative side effects of antipsychotic drugs, such as painful seizures.
However, usually, it is unnecessary to look at the negative effects. For example, there is no need to consider the problems associated with dialysis treatment for someone whose kidney function would be substantially limited without this treatment.
Other ways to be considered as having a disability
A record or history of disability
There are some situations where the ADA considers you to have a disability even though you do not have a substantially limiting impairment. One of these situations occurs where 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 make sure that people are not discriminated against because they have a history of disability. A person would fall into this category of disability if his medical records showed that he once had a disability but has now recovered, or they never had one.
To prove discrimination under this section of the ADA, you would have to show that your employer, school or someone in public relied on a record showing that you had a substantially limiting impairment.
- An employer refuses to hire you due to your history of mental illness, even though you have recovered sufficiently to perform all essential functions of the job.
- A dentist refuses to treat you because you were diagnosed as having HIV, even though the diagnosis was wrong.
Regarded as having an impairment
There is another situation where you can be considered as having a disability, even though you do not have a substantially limiting impairment. This is when an employer, school or someone in public sees you as having a disability by discriminating against you based on any impairment they believe you have. In this situation, you are considered to have a disability whether or not you have an impairment and whether or not an impairment limits a major life activity. Also, you do not need to prove that your employer, school or someone in public sees you as being substantially limited in a particular major life activity.
However, your employer, school or someone in public 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: Persons who are protected by the ADA from employers, schools or someone in the public who sees them as disabled when they are not cannot get reasonable accommodations.
Sometimes you may be considered disabled if an employer, school or someone in public sees you as having an impairment simply because they deny you 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. However, his employer fears that the employee will suffer a heart attack and reassigns the employee to a less strenuous job.
- A person with a severe burn or scar does not have a disability. He may be regarded as having a disability when he faces discrimination based on people's attitudes.
Updated: January 2017