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What Does the ADA Call a Disability?


Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 defines an individual with a disability as:

  • Someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
  • Someone who has a history or record of such an impairment.
  • Someone who is regarded as having such an impairment.

A series of Supreme Court rulings led the U.S. Congress to believe that the 1990 legislation's definition of "disability" was too narrow and made it too hard to prove that an impairment is a disability. Consequently, Congress expanded that definition.

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), which took effect in 2009. The new law rejects the Supreme Court's narrow interpretation of "disability," making it possible for more employees to qualify for reasonable accommodations and file disability discrimination claims.

Specifically, the ADAAA:

Expands the definition of "major life activities" and includes examples, such as caring for oneself, seeing, hearing, sleeping, eating, walking, breathing, concentrating, thinking, lifting, bending, performing manual tasks, working and standing. It also adds "major bodily functions," such as normal cell growth, immune system, digestive, bowel, brain, respiratory, circulatory, bladder and reproductive functions.

Directs the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to revise its definition of "substantially limits" so that the term can be more expansively interpreted.

Redefines the "regarded as" requirement. In the past, to meet the "regarded as" criterion, a person had to show that he or she was perceived as having an impairment which substantially limited a major life activity.

Now, a person only needs to demonstrate that he or she is perceived as having an impairment. It doesn't matter whether the impairment limits a major life activity. However, the impairment cannot be minor or transitory. According to the ADAAA, a transitory impairment is an impairment that lasts, or is expected to last, six months or less.

Extends "disability" to impairments that are episodic or in remission, provided they substantially limit a major life activity when active. For example, an epileptic person is disabled if his or her seizures substantially limit a major life activity when they happen.

Prohibits the consideration of "mitigating measures." In other words, determinations about whether an impairment constitutes a disability must be based on the disability itself, without considering "mitigating measures" — such as medications, hearing aids, accommodations, assistive technology and other improvement tools.

The use of "ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses" is the only exception to the "mitigating measures" rule. Also, the ADAAA prohibits employers from testing job applicants' uncorrected vision — unless the test is related to the position and consistent with business necessity.

After the passage of the ADAAA, many more employees and job applicants became eligible for disability consideration. It's therefore paramount that employers understand the impact of the ADAAA, as well as the ADA overall.


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