What Is Considered a Disability Under the ADA?

by Jennifer Mueller

The Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, protects millions of Americans with mental or physical disabilities from discrimination at work, school and other public places. The law, enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, requires businesses and educational institutions to make reasonable accommodations that will allow people with disabilities the same opportunities as able-bodied people.

A Substantial Limitation

To qualify for coverage under the ADA, your disability must be one that substantially limits what the law refers to as a "major life activity." These activities include things like seeing, hearing, eating, walking, standing or lifting. Mental activities include concentrating, communicating, reading or learning. This definition includes major bodily functions such as those involving the immune, digestive or respiratory system. The 2008 amendments made clear that impairments meet this requirement regardless of any medication or equipment used. For example, even if someone with a hearing impairment can hear in the normal range if she wears a hearing aid, she still comes under the ADA's protection. Temporary or episodic impairments also qualify, as well as conditions such as diabetes that affect only internal functions.

Physical Restrictions

The ADA protects people from discrimination who have obvious physical impairments, such as those that require the use of a wheelchair. However, people with physiological disorders or conditions that may not be readily apparent in a face-to-face encounter, such as someone with insulin-dependent diabetes, also qualify if the impairment substantially limits any one major activity or bodily function. The ADA also considers any episodic condition such as epilepsy a disability, even if the condition is in remission, as long as it would be a substantial limitation if it were active. The ADA does not consider pregnancy a physical impairment, nor does it include any physical characteristics such as height or weight that aren't the result of a physiological disorder.

Mental Conditions

Mental and psychological disorders entitled to protection from discrimination under the ADA include specific learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and diagnosed emotional or mental illnesses such as major depression or bipolar disorder. Personality traits such as a quick temper or poor judgment skills, even though they may significantly impair a major life activity, don't qualify for ADA protection alone. However, someone with a qualifying mental disorder may exhibit some of these personality traits. The ADA still considers emotional and mental conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia to be disabilities even if someone finds stability through medication and treatment.

Misperceptions of Others

The ADA protects people from discrimination not only when they have an actual disability, but also when someone else, such as an employer, regards them as having an impairment. Anyone discriminated against because someone else perceives they have a disability can seek remedy under the ADA, even if they do not have or never have had any disability. This includes people who don't meet the definition, such as people who have a physical or mental impairment that doesn't substantially limit any major life activity or bodily function. Additionally, people who have a record of impairment in the past, such as someone who previously had cancer that is now in remission, also fall under the ADA's scope. The 2008 amendments broadened the understanding of this to address the damage done by prejudice and stereotypes.

About the Author

Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

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