Am I Disabled Under the ADA?

by | Aug 2, 2016

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

This month marks the 26th anniversary of the ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that was passed by Congress and signed into law by then-President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990.[1] The law was designed to ensure that disabled Americans would have equal opportunities to find gainful employment, receive all of the benefits of employment, and find success in their careers based solely on the merits of their performance and abilities. In passing this legislation, Congress intended not only to afford protection to thousands of disabled Americans, but also to provide them with a legal course of action to take against disability discrimination in the workplace.[2]

ADA Amendments Act of 2008

As cases of disability discrimination began to make their way through the courts, the federal judiciary proceeded to narrow the standard of what it meant to be “disabled” under the ADA in case after case (most notably in the United States Supreme Court cases Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999) and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002)), thereby creating a threshold that was very difficult for most people to meet. In response, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Because the findings and conclusions of the federal judiciary had deprived thousands of Americans of the protections afforded by the ADA, including the right to legal redress, Congress’s express intent in passing the ADAAA was to reject the findings of the federal courts. Specifically Congress stated, “that the primary object of attention in cases brought under the ADA should be whether entities covered under the ADA have complied with their obligations, and to convey that the question of whether an individual’s impairment is a disability under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis.”[3]

Am I Qualified for Protection Under the ADA/ADAAA?

The ADA recognizes three distinct definitions of disabled. The first protects individuals with an actual disability[4]. While there is no precise definition of what it means to be “disabled,” the passing of the ADAAA has made it easier to establish that an individual has a disability. In order to be considered actually disabled under the ADA, you must have a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits [your] ability . . . to perform a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population.”[5] It is important to note that simply having a physical or mental impairment is not enough to be considered as having a disability—the impairment must meet the standard of “substantially limit[ing] a major life activity.”[6] Federal courts have ruled, however, that the “ADA is not a general protection for medically afflicted” individuals.[7]

Major life activities are defined by the ADA to include, without limitation: “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”[8] Furthermore, the “operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions” is identified by the ADA as a major life activity.[9] An impairment need not be constant or permanent to be considered a disability, but a minor, temporary impairment is not sufficient to qualify as a disability.[10] Additionally, a condition that is caused by something other than a mental or physical impairment is not considered a disability.[11]

The second definition of disabled under the ADA is having a record of a disability.[12] In essence, this definition is in place to protect those who formerly had a disability from lingering assumptions or stereotypes related to that disability. Thus, someone who had a physical or mental impairment that was substantially limiting but no longer has one, may still be qualified for protection under the ADA. An individual is considered to have a record of a disability if he or she has a history of a disability and that disability would have, at the time, fit the definition of an actual disability as described above.[13] For example, if an employer fires an employee who has fully recovered from a serious back injury based on the fear that the employee might reinjure his back, the employer could be illegally discriminating against the employee for having a record of a disability.

The third way an individual can be qualified for protection under the ADA is if he or she has been “regarded as” disabled by an employer or potential employer. To be “regarded as” disabled means that an employee does not actually have a physical or mental impairment that is substantially limiting, but the employer nevertheless holds a belief that the he or she does have such impairment. If the employer takes adverse action against the employee based on this belief, the employer would be acting in an illegally discriminatory manner under the “regarded as” definition of the ADA.[14] Here is example scenario of “regarded as” disability discrimination: an employee calls in sick to work one day because he is experiencing a sore back after a day of playing with his children. His condition is minor and does not substantially limit him in any way. With some rest and ice, his back will be better in a few days. Upon hearing the employee has called in sick because of a sore back, his employer assumes he has a major back injury and will no longer be able to fulfill his job duties and fires him based upon this assumption. Such action on the part of the employer could violate the “regarded as” prong of the ADA.

[1] “Introduction to the ADA,” ADA.gov. https://www.ada.gov/ada_intro.htm.

[2] 42 U.S.C. § 12101(a), https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/12101.

[3] 110th Congress Public Law 325, Page 122 STAT. 3553(b)(5) (emphasis added); see also 29 C.F.R. § 1630, Appendix to Part 1630, https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/29/part-1630/appendix-lii10.

[4] 42 U.S.C.A. § 12102(1)(A), https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/12102.

[5] 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ii), https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/29/1630.2.

[6] Id.

[7] See e.g., Evola v. City of Franklin, 18 F. Supp. 3d 935, 945 (M.D. Tenn. 2014).

[8] 42 U.S.C.A. § 12102(2)(A), https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/12102.

[9] 42 U.S.C.A. § 12102(2)(B), https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/12102.

[10] See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ii), https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/29/1630.2.

[11] For example, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that conditions such as obesity and sleep disorders are only considered disabilities if “the condition is the result of a physiological condition” as opposed to as a result of personal behavior. Neely v. Benchmark Family Servs., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52267, at *16 (S.D. Ohio 2015), aff’d by Neely v. Benchmark Family Servs., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 1391 (6th Cir., Jan. 26, 2016) (citing EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 463 F.3d. 436, 443 (6th Cir. 2006)) (remaining citation omitted).

[12] 42 U.S.C.A. § 12102(2)(B), https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/12102.

[13] Id.

[14] 42 U.S.C.A. § 12102(1)(C) and (3)(A) and (B), https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/12102.

If you believe you have been illegally discriminated against based on any of these three definitions of disability under the ADA, we encourage you to seek experienced legal counsel to discuss your legal options.