Definition of Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act
Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities. A person has a disability "if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment."
Impact of the ADA Amendments Act
This definition has not changed since the law was originally implemented in 1990. However, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) and the subsequent regulations released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) directed us to interpret the definition differently. The ADAAA said that the "substantially limits" part of the definition should be construed broadly to provide protections to a broader class of people with disabilities. While this may sound permissive to some readers, before the ADAAA was passed, very few people could successfully secure the protections that the ADA was intended to provide. When a case went to court, the person with a disability was inevitably found to be either not sufficiently disabled to be covered by the law, or so disabled that they could not be qualified for the job in question. In essence, the ADAAA reset the ADA to its original intent to prevent discrimination in employment for people with disabilities.
A Three Prong Definition of Disability
The definition is commonly referred to as a "three-prong" definition as it identifies three ways in which a person can qualify for the protections offered by the ADA. The three “prongs” of the law are reviewed below.
- A person who receives the protections of the ADA under the first prong is a person who is currently experiencing a disability as defined by the law. This person experiences a disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
- A person who receives the protections of the ADA under the second prong is a person who has a record of a disability that substantially limited a major life activity. This person may have had cancer that is in remission. While that disability does not currently impact the persons functioning, the person still needs to receive regular medical care to reduce the likelihood of its return.
- A person who receives the protections of the ADA under the third prong is a person who is regarded as having a disability does not, in fact, have a disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities. For example, a person who has a fascial disfigurement that did not impact the way that they approached their life in any way might be covered under this prong of the definition. While they experience no impact from the way that they look, if an employer takes an adverse employment action because of their perception of disability, they would qualify for the protections of the ADA.
Associational Discrimination under the ADA
There is one additional mechanism that allows someone to claim the protections of the ADA. The Association Provision of the ADA protects "applicants and employees from discrimination based on their relationship or association with an individual with a disability, whether or not the applicant or employee has a disability". The trigger of protections in this portion of the law is the motivation of the employer to take an adverse employment action, rather than the relationship itself. This portion of the law prevents employers from taking adverse employment actions based on unfounded assumptions around things like caregiving responsibilities or insurance costs.
Must be Qualified to be covered by the ADA
Regardless of whether or not someone has a disability under the ADA, they must be qualified for the position they hold or wish to hold in order to enact the protections available to them under Title I.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2011a). Regulations to implement the equal employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended. Retrieved from https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2011/03/25/2011-6056/regulations-to-implement-the-equal-employment-provisions-of-the-americans-with-disabilities-act-as
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2011b). Questions and answers about the association provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/facts/association_ada.html