What Is A Disability Under The ADA?

Posted by Rochelle Harris on Mar 25th 2021

How Do You Know If You're Covered By The Americans with Disabilities Act?

If you or someone you know is handicapped or there is an individual with a disability, whether it is physical or mental, you may be asking the question, what is a disability under the ADA? How do I know if this person with a disability is covered, and therefore protected, by the Americans with Disabilities Act? What is the official definition of disability under the ADA guidelines?

People who live with disabilities already have a difficult road to travel in life, and sometimes every step of the way is a challenge. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) affects all state and local government offices as well as other regular businesses. It is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination of any individual with a disability, under the ADA guidelines.

This basically means that any individual with a disability is protected by the ADA in regards to all issues that fall under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, such as having the same job opportunities as everyone else, or issues in regards to a disability that may arise at the workplace.

It also requires employers to have to make any reasonable accommodation necessary for a disabled employee to perform their normal job duties. An example of a reasonable accommodation is providing handicapped parking or raising the height of a desk to accommodate a person in a wheelchair.

It also charges nearly every state and local business (if it has 15 or more full-time employees) with having to make these reasonable accommodations for all potential disabled or handicapped patrons. It is a federal law meant to make life just a little bit easier and more inclusive for them.

Still, it begs the question, what qualifies as a disability under these guidelines? Does it apply to me or my friend or family member? Let's see if we can find out a more in-depth definition of this.

The ADA Definition of Disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act's definition of disability is having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. Still, this is a bit vague, so let's delve a little deeper into the issue.

If it's a physical impairment, it is considered: a medical condition, disorder or loss that affects any system of the body and substantially limits your ability to perform at least one major life activity.

If the condition is mental, it could: affect cognitive brain function or be considered a behavioral disorder. It could further be described as: an intellectual disability, organic brain syndrome, mental illness or certain learning disorders, are considered impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities. Here are some examples:

  • AIDS, and its symptoms
  • Asthma
  • Blindness or other visual impairments
  • Cancer
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Hearing or speech impairments
  • Heart Disease
  • Migraine Headaches
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Orthopedic impairments
  • Paralysis
  • Complications from Pregnancy
  • Thyroid gland disorders
  • Tuberculosis
  • Loss of body parts

In a physical or mental impairment or disorder, of which there are examples of both listed above, keep in mind this must be: an impairment that substantially limits your ability to perform at least one major life activity. In perspective, this means as opposed to minimally limiting.

What About Addictions, Compulsive & Personality Disorders?

Another common question regarding disabilities covered by the ADA is what about addictions, like drugs or alcohol? How about compulsive disorders like gambling or even sex addictions? Are the people with disabilities like these protected, as well? If so, what would an employer have to do as far as a reasonable accommodation? Would they also have to hire and fire them equally, and with no discrimination? How are these types of mental impairments that substantially limit major life activities determined?

Here are the short answers. Drug addiction is valid, as long as these two factors are also true: 1-the person has a documented history of addiction, and 2-the person is not presently using drugs. It is also important to note that occasional drug use, of things like cocaine and prescription drugs, is considered "normal", and as such, not a disability.

Alcoholism is always considered a valid disability, however, while gambling and sex are not. What about an anxiety disorder, or OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)? Yes to both! Obviously, the answers to these questions make for interesting conversation topics and great legal arguments.

Here's the thing: under the current definition of disability, any chronic condition that substantially limits a major life activity will qualify. Cognitive thinking and concentration are definitely major life activities, both of which are "substantially limited" by any addiction, compulsive disorder, personality disorder, etc. But what, in these cases, would a "reasonable accommodation" be, for an employer to have to make?

ADA Compliance Issues

There are many different laws and regulations currently in place for businesses that involve making at least what is called reasonable accommodations for all people with disabilities. But who decides what is considered reasonable? Does the responsibility for providing this reasonable accommodation always fall on the employer or business?

The original ADA was signed into law in 1990, but in 2008 the Act was amended, and in 2011 was updated again. Any 2010 or newer construction on any business must be compliant with specific standard ADA design requirements now known as the "2010 Standards for Accessible Design".

Older businesses must also be willing to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, including architecture or design changes. All businesses including state and local government offices are included in the Act. In fact, state and local government offices were among the first to make these necessary changes, leading the way for others.

Although the ADA was originally designed to protect the rights of, and standardize building designs for, individuals with disabilities, as with many laws, it has its "gray areas". Among them, reasonable accommodation is a term subject to interpretation.

The Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing the ADA. You can also contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, for issues that arise from the workplace. To find out more about ADA disabilities, check out ADA Central. Learn what is ADA seating today!