What Is the True Definition of a "Disability?"
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws prohibit employers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The ADA also requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to applicants and employees with qualified disabilities, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business.
It's important to understand what is considered a disability under the law to help you comply with the ADA and relevant state laws. Here are some rules and guidelines to assist.
What is the definition of "disability" under the ADA?
Under the ADA, the definition of disability includes three prongs:
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity;
- A record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited a major life activity;
- Being regarded as having an impairment. An employer "regards" an individual as having a disability, for example, if the employer believes the individual has an impairment.
How does the ADA define "physical or mental impairment"?
ADA regulations define "physical or mental impairment" as any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin and endocrine. The regulations also cover any mental or psychological disorder, such as intellectual disability, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.
What are "major life activities"?
The ADA regulations provide a non-exhaustive list of examples of major life activities:
- Caring for oneself
- Performing manual tasks
- Seeing or hearing
- Walking, standing, sitting
- Reaching, lifting, bending
- Learning or reading
- Concentrating or thinking
- Communicating or interacting with others
The regulations also state that major life activities include the operation of major bodily functions, such as functions of the immune system.
When does an impairment "substantially limit" a major life activity?
The regulations include nine guidelines to consider when determining if an individual is substantially limited in performing a major life activity. These guidelines should be interpreted broadly.
- An impairment is a disability if it substantially limits the individual's ability to perform a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population. It doesn't need to prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, the individual from performing a major life activity to be considered substantially limiting.
- The determination of disability should not require extensive analysis.
- The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity requires an individualized assessment.
- The term "substantially limits" should be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA.
- Although the determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity as compared to most people, will not usually require scientific, medical, or statistical evidence, such evidence may be used if appropriate.
- The positive effects from an individual's use of mitigating measures (see below) other than ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses must be ignored in determining if an impairment substantially limits a major life activity.
- An impairment that is episodic or in remission meets the definition of disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.
- An impairment doesn't have to last for more than six months to be considered substantially limiting under the first or the second prong of the definition of disability.
Mitigating measures eliminate or reduce the symptoms or impact of an impairment, such as medication or assistive devices. Under the regulations:
- The positive effects from the use of mitigating measures other than ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses must be ignored in determining if an impairment substantially limits a major life activity.
- The negative effects of mitigating measures may be considered when determining whether the individual's impairment meets the definition of disability.
- Both the positive and negative effects of mitigating measures may be considered when determining whether an individual is entitled to a reasonable accommodation.
When may an individualized assessment be required?
The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity requires an individualized assessment. However, the ADA regulations include a non-exhaustive list of impairments for which this assessment should be simple and straightforward. These include deafness, blindness, intellectual disability, partially or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring the 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.
State and Local Laws:
Some states and local jurisdictions have laws that cover smaller employers and/or have a broader definition of a disability. For instance, California's definition of disability generally requires that the impairment simply limit a major life activity, instead of requiring it to substantially limit a major life activity. The state's law also covers smaller employers (those with five or more employees). Make sure you check your state and local law to ensure compliance.
Review your policies and practices to ensure that they comply with applicable federal, state, and local disability protection laws.