Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Do you know? What is a “disability” under the recent ADA Amendments Act


The ADA Amendments Act, which became effective January 1, 2009, is intended “to reinstate a broad scope of protection” by expanding the definition of the term “disability.” Recently, the EEOC published its proposed regulation interpreting these amended provisions. The regulations will be published this week, and the EEOC has already published a helpful Q&A discussing the proposed ADAAA regulations.

The core three-part definition of “disability” largely remains unaltered. An ADA-protected disability is still defined as:

  1. a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; or
  2. a record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited a major life activity; or
  3. when an employer takes an action prohibited by the ADA based on an actual or perceived impairment.

What has changed under the ADAAA is how these definitions are interpreted and applied. Indeed, according to the EEOC, “As a result of the ADAAA, it will be much easier for individuals seeking the law’s protection to demonstrate that they meet the definition of ‘disability….’”

Major Life Activities

“Major life activities” fall under one of two categories. An employee only needs one major life activity from either of the following:

  • Category One includes examples such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working at a type of work.
  • Category Two covers the operation of major bodily functions, including functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, hemic, lymphatic, musculoskeletal, special sense organs and skin, genitourinary, cardiovascular and reproductive functions.

Substantially Limiting

To have a disability (or to have a record of a disability) an individual must be substantially limited in performing a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population. An impairment need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, the individual in performing a major life activity to be considered “substantially limiting.” Determination of whether an individual is experiencing a substantial limitation in performing a major life activity is a common-sense assessment based on comparing an individual’s ability to perform a specific major life activity with that of most people in the general population.

Mitigating Measures

The positive effects from an individual’s use of one or more mitigating measures be ignored in determining if an impairment substantially limits a major life activity. In other words, an employer must ignore the fact that a mitigating measure removes or reduces an impairment in determining whether an employee is disabled. Mitigating measures include medication, medical equipment and devices, prosthetic limbs, low vision devices (devices that magnify a visual image), reasonable accommodations, and even behavioral modifications. Ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses do not count as mitigating measures.

Exemplar Impairments

  • The following are examples of impairments that consistently meet the definition of “disability”: deafness, blindness, intellectual disability (formerly known as mental retardation), partially or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring use of a wheelchair (a mitigating measure), autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.

  • The following are examples of impairments that may be substantially limiting for some individuals but not for others: asthma, back and leg impairments, and learning disabilities.

  • An impairment that is episodic or in remission meets the definition of disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active. Examples of such impairments include: epilepsy, hypertension, multiple sclerosis, asthma, diabetes, major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

  • The following are examples of impairments that usually are not considered “disabilities”: the common cold, seasonal or common influenza, a sprained joint, minor and non-chronic gastrointestinal disorders, a broken bone that is expected to heal completely, appendicitis and seasonal allergies.

“Regarded as” Disabled

Under the ADAAA, an employer “regards” an individual as having a disability if it takes a prohibited action based on an individual’s impairment or on an impairment the employer believes the individual has, unless the impairment is transitory (lasting or expected to last for six months or less) and minor. No longer does one have to show that the employer believed the impairment (or perceived impairment) substantially limited performance of a major life activity. Employers have no obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to an individual who only meets the “regarded as” definition of disability.

The regulations are not final, and are subject to change after the public has had a 60-day opportunity to comment and make suggestions. I will report further on these regulations after they become final.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

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