What Is a Disability Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

Not every impairment or disease qualifies as a disability under the ADA; learn the rules here.

Employees and applicants are protected from disability discrimination by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, not every disease or ailment counts as a protected disability. Someone has a disability under the ADA only if he or she falls into one of these three categories:

  • The employee has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, without taking mitigating measures into account. (Mitigating measures are equipment, supplies, technology, aids, or other things used to ameliorate the effects of a physical or mental condition, such as medication, medical supplies, prosthetics, hearing aids, mobility devices, assistive technology, and so on; ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses are not considered mitigating measures.)
  • The employee has a record or history of such an impairment.
  • The employer incorrectly regards the employee as having a disability, as defined above.

Courts tend not to categorically characterize certain conditions as disabilities. Instead, they consider the effect of the particular condition on the particular employee to determine whether it meets these criteria.

Physical or Mental Impairment

A physical impairment means a disorder, condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or an anatomical loss that negatively affects the body's functioning. A mental impairment is any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, or a learning disability.

An impairment is different from a condition or trait. Only impairments can be disabilities; conditions and traits cannot. For example, height and weight, when they are in the normal range, are traits, not impairments. Personality traits, such as poor judgment or a quick temper, are also not impairments (unless they are symptoms of a mental or psychological disorder).

Substantial Limitation

An impairment is a disability only if it substantially limits a major life activity. This rule has been the subject of much debate. When Congress amended the ADA in 2008, it instructed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to define this term more broadly, in order to protect more people from discrimination. The EEOC complied when it issued final regulations in 2011.

According to these regulations, the term "substantially limits" is not meant to be a demanding standard. A person can be substantially limited in performing a major life activity even if that person isn't prevented from, or significantly restricted in, performing that activity. Courts must look at the condition, manner, and duration of the person's ability to do the activity. For example, can the person perform the activity only for a short period? Must the person expend significant effort to do the activity? Is it painful or otherwise difficult for the person to perform the activity? Do the side effects of medication or other treatment make it difficult to perform the activity?

Major Life Activities

Major life activities are activities that are of essential importance to daily life, such as:

  • caring for oneself
  • performing manual tasks
  • walking
  • seeing
  • hearing
  • speaking
  • breathing, and
  • learning.

Major bodily functions also qualify as major life activities. This means that serious conditions that have not yet appeared as outwardly debilitating will be covered as disabilities. For example, many types of cancer wreak havoc on the body's internal functioning before they substantially limit a person's ability to breathe or walk. Major bodily functions include the proper working of bodily processes, functions, or systems, such as the immune system, normal cell growth, and the digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

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