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

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines “disability” to mean: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) a record of such an impairment; (3) or being regarded as having such an impairment.  “Major life activities” include activities like walking, lifting, and communicating as well as major bodily functions like cell growth and neurological functioning.  See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(g–i).

To determine if an employee’s impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity and qualifies as a disability for ADA purposes, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides the following nine “rules of construction” as guidance to employers:

  1. The phrase “substantially limits” shall be construed broadly and not as a demanding standard.
  2. To qualify as disabled, an employee’s ability to perform a major life activity must be “substantially limited” as compared to “most people in the general population.”
  3. The determination of whether an employee is “substantially limited” should not demand extensive analysis.
  4. The determination of whether an employee is “substantially limited” must be individualized.
  5. The determination of whether an employee is “substantially limited” usually will not require scientific, medical, or statistical analysis.
  6. The determination of whether an employee is “substantially limited” must be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures (except ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses).
  7. For impairments that are episodic or in remission, the determination of whether an employee is “substantially limited” must be based on the impairment “when active.”
  8. Only one “major life activity” needs to be “substantially limited” for an employee to be disabled.
  9. The effects of an impairment may be “substantially limiting” even if the impairment lasts or is expected to last less than six months.

See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1).

Takeaway for Employers:  Determining whether someone is “disabled” under the ADA requires an individualized assessment, but the standard should be interpreted broadly.  Certain impairments will qualify as a disability in virtually all cases.

About Michael Miller

Michael is a Chambers-rated attorney in Briggs and Morgan's Employment, Benefits, and Labor group and is head of the firm’s Employment Law Counseling and Compliance practice group. He has 25 years experience counseling employers to prevent unwanted litigation and advises companies of ongoing changes in federal, state and local employment law. Michael advises employers in all areas of employment law including discipline and discharge, leaves of absence, wage and hour compliance, non-compete and confidentiality agreements, affirmative action plans, background checking, and drug/alcohol testing. For Michael's full bio, click here.

Posted on January 20, 2012, in Accommodations and Accessibility and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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