Man in a wheelchair with a sign affixed to his wheelchair which reads "access is a civil rights."The ADA is a comprehensive civil rights law. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government programs, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.

What is the definition of disability under the ADA?

It is important to remember that in the context of the ADA, “disability” is a legal term rather than a medical one. Because it has a legal definition, the ADA’s definition of disability is different from how disability is defined under some other laws.

A photo depicting the symbol for an accessible restroom that reads “Not every disability is visible.” The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability. The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability.

What do you mean by “association with a person with a disability”?

For example, if I do not have a disability, but I work in an HIV clinic, it would not be legal for someone to discriminate against me based on the fact that I work with, or “associate” with, people who have HIV.

What are major life activities?

Major life activities are those functions that are important to most people’s daily lives. Examples of major life activities are breathing, walking, talking, hearing, seeing, sleeping, caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, and working. Major life activities also include major bodily functions such as immune system functions, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

What does a “record of” a disability mean?

“Record of” means that the person has a history of, or has been misclassified as having, a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, even though the person does not currently have a disability.

Can you give me an example of someone who has a “record of” a disability without having a current disability?

Sure. A man, who is in line for a promotion, has a history of cancer treatment, although he is now free of cancer. He is not given the promotion because his bosses are worried that, if his cancer returns, he won’t be able to do the job. He does not, at this point, meet the first part of the definition of disability because he does not have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. However, based on his “record of” a disability, he is being discriminated against.

What does “regarded as” having a disability mean?

“Regarded as” means that the person either:

  • Has an impairment that does not substantially limit a major life activity;
  • Has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity only as a result of the attitudes of others toward them; or
  • Does not have any impairment, but is treated by an entity as having an impairment.

Can you give me an example of someone who is “regarded as” having a disability?

Yes. A woman applies for a job as a customer service representative at a department store. Her face is badly scarred from an automobile accident. The interviewer doesn’t want to give her the job, in spite of her skills and experience, because he thinks customers will be uncomfortable looking at her. She is not substantially limited in any major life activity, but the interviewer is “regarding her as” if she has a disability.

Are all people who have disabilities covered by the ADA?

I’ll give you the “lawyer answer” – it depends. All people who meet the ADA definition of disability are covered by the ADA in general, but they still may not have rights under particular sections of the ADA. For example, there is a section of the ADA that deals only with employment discrimination. If a person with a disability is not employed and is not seeking employment, then that person would not necessarily be covered by that part of the ADA, although the person would be covered by other parts of the ADA.

Are psychiatric disabilities covered, too?

Yes, the ADA definition of disability includes mental, as well as physical, impairments.

How many people in the United States have a disability?

According to the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) data, approximately 54 million Americans have a disability.

A chart with a symbolic image of a person in a wheelchair that reads 31 mil have difficulty walking or climbing stairs, 7.6 mil experience difficulty hearing; 2 mil are blind or unable to see, 8.1 mil have difficulty seeing, 57 mil people in the United States have disabilities or 19% of the populationWhat kinds of things does the ADA cover?

The ADA is divided into five sections called “titles.” Each title covers a different area. Title I covers employment. Title II covers state and local government programs. Title III covers places of public accommodation. Title IV covers telecommunications. Title V has several miscellaneous provisions that cover things like retaliation and attorney fees.

I heard there is a new ADA. Is this book about the new ADA or the old ADA?

Actually, what you might have heard called the “new ADA” is really called The ADA Amendments Act – or the ADAAA. After the ADA was originally passed in 1990, cases started being filed and ending up in courts. Some were appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Rulings by the Supreme Court, as well as lower courts, began to narrow the definition of disability. Whether a person had a disability in order to sue became the focus of most disputes under the ADA. Congress never intended for it to be that way. The focus of the ADA was supposed to be on access and accommodation, not on whether the person really had a disability. Congress had not foreseen the ways in which the courts would narrowly interpret, and ultimately change, the definition.

So the ADAAA was passed in 2008 and essentially overturned those Supreme Court cases that narrowed the definition of disability. Congress made clear that the definition must be “construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals” with disabilities. So rather than this being a “new ADA,” it really is just going back to the way Congress meant the ADA to be when it was first written and passed in 1990.

 

This page contains information provided by The ADA National Network Disability Law Handbook created by Jacquie Brennan Southwest ADA Center. http://adata.org/publication/disability-law-handbook