FAQs

What is a Disability Under the ADA?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an individual is classified as disabled if he or she meets one of the following definitions:

  • The person has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • The person has a record of having, currently or in the past, a physical or mental impairment
  • The person is regarded as having a physical or mental impairment

"Substantially limits" means that the individual is either unable to perform a major life activity or significantly restricted in his or her ability to perform a major life activity when compared to the capabilities of the average person.

"Major life activities" are defined as the basic activities that an average person can perform with little or no difficulty. Some examples include seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing, learning, working, sitting, standing, thinking and interacting with others. Courts in various jurisdictions also have found reproduction, traveling, sleeping, running and intercourse as other examples of major life activities.

Finding that an individual has a disability depends more on the effect it has on a person's life, rather than the name or classification of the impairment. The ADA does not provide an exhaustive list of every condition, which could be considered a disability. Rather, it provides examples of disabilities, including:

  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Amputated limbs
  • Mental retardation
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Cerebral palsy
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Paraplegia
  • Renal disease

Conditions that have been found not to meet the definition of disability include: homosexuality, bisexuality, lesbianism, transsexualism, transgenderism, sexual behavior disorders, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania and psychoactive substance abuse disorders caused by current illegal drug use.

The second category, those having a record of current or past mental or physical impairments, applies to those individuals who have a history of an illness or impairment and have since partially or fully recovered. This could include cancer survivors, for example.

The third category, those regarded as having a mental or physical impairment, applies to those who have been treated as having one of these conditions, but have been wrongly diagnosed or treated. It also applies to those with physical and mental impairments that do not affect major life activities, but have been treated as if they do by their employers or their impairments are only substantially limiting because of the way others treat them.

The US Supreme Court ruled that any mitigating measures taken by the individual with the mental or physical impairment should be taken into account in determining the effects of the disability on substantially limiting a major life activity. This decision was at odds with the findings of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which had stated previously that mitigating measures should not be considered when determining the extent of the disability. Mitigating measures include medications, prosthetics or therapies used by the individual to control or lessen the effects of the disability.

For more information on your protections under the ADA or whether your condition will meet the requirements for a disability under the Act, contact a knowledgeable employment law attorney in your area.

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