ADA: Americans with Disabilities Act

Americans with Disabilities Act

Introduction to the ADA > Employment > Government / Public Transportation > Public Accommodation

Employment > Take the Test > What is Considered an Impairment > Qualified Individual with a Disability: > Reasonable Accommodations

What is Considered an Impairment

Substantial Limits

An impairment is a disability under the ADA only if it substantially limits one or more major life activities. An impairment is substantially limiting if a person is unable to perform an activity as compared to an average person in the general population. Three factors must be considered in determining whether a person's impairment substantially limits a major life activity. These are:

These three factors must be considered because, under the ADA, it is not the name of the impairment or condition that determines whether a person is protected by the ADA but rather the effect of the impairment on the life of the person. For example, a person with a minor vision impairment of 20/40 does not have a substantial impairment. Similarly a person who can walk continuously for ten but not eleven miles does not have an impairment. Two individuals may sustain back injuries. The first, who worked as a clerk, was unable to walk, sit stand, drive and care for her home. She is considered to be an individual with a disability. The second individual who worked in construction sustained a back injury but was not limited in any major life activity and was therefore not considered to be a person with a disability.

The assessment of whether a person has a disability is made without regard to reasonable modifications, auxiliary aids or medication. For example a person who walks with an artificial leg is considered to have a disability just as the person with epilepsy whose seizures are controlled by medication is considered to have a disability.

Impairments of a temporary nature may or may not be considered disabilities. For example a broken leg is not considered to be a disability unless the healing of the break took a significantly longer time than usual.

Major Life Activities

To be a disability covered by the ADA, an impairment must substantially limit one or more major life activities. A major life activity is an activity that an average person can perform with little or not difficulty. Examples are walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, working, sitting, standing, lifting, reading.

Record of Such An Impairment

This part of the definition protects individuals who have a history of a disability from discrimination, whether or not they are currently substantially limited in a major life activity. This part of the definition protects people with a history of cancer, heart disease, mental illness and more, whose illnesses are either cured, controlled or in remission.

This part of the definition protects individuals who may have been misclassified or misdiagnosed as having a disability. It protects people who have been mistakenly diagnosed with mental retardation or a learning disability. If an employer uses a record with the misdiagnosis as the basis for not hiring an individual who is currently qualified to perform a job, the decision not to hire may be considered a discriminatory action.

This part of the definition would protect an individual who had a drug addiction and was successfully rehabilitated but not a casual drug user. In the example of the drug addict, the addiction was an impairment that substantially limited major life activities. Under the ADA, casual drug use does not substantially limit major life activities and is therefore not covered.

People protected under this definition must have a record of physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Regarded As Having Such An Impairment

An individual is protected under this part of the definition in three circumstances.

In the first, the person may have an impairment that is not substantially limiting but is perceived by a covered agency as being a substantially limiting impairment. For example, an employee has controlled high blood pressure which does not substantially limit his work activities. If his employee shifts the worker to a less strenuous job out of fear that the person will have a heart attack at his present job, the employer has regarded the person as disabled.

In the second circumstance, the person may have an impairment that is only substantially limiting because of the attitudes of others. For example, a three year old child with a facial disfigurement was refused admission to a private day program because the school authorities believed that the presence of this child would upset the other children. This three year old child is a person with a physical impairment which substantially limits her major life activities only as the result of the attitudes of others toward her.

In the third circumstance, the person may not have a disability, but be regard by the employer or other covered agency as having a substantial limiting impairment. For example, an employer dismissed an individual because he heard a rumor that the person had cancer. The person did not have an impairment, but was treated as if she had a substantially limiting impairment.

This part of the definition protects people who are perceived to have disabilities from discriminatory decisions based on fears, stereotypes or misconceptions about disability. Such protection is necessary according to Congress and the Supreme Court because "society's myths and fears about disability and disease are as handicapping as are the physical limitation that flow from actual impairments."


A person who currently illegally uses drugs is not protected by the ADA. However a person who is in or has completed drug rehabilitation and is no longer illegally using drugs is covered under the ADA.

Homosexuality and bisexuality are not impairments and are not covered by the ADA.

Also excluded because they are not impairments are sexual and behavior disorders: transvestitism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism voyeurism gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, or other sexual behavior disorders; compulsive gambling, kleptomania or pyromania, or psychoactive substance disorders resulting from current illegal use of drugs.

Next: Qualified Individual with a Disability

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