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Disability as Defined by the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits employment discrimination against "qualified individuals with disabilities."

Determining who is a "qualified individual with a disability" is a complicated process. Under the ADA an individual has a disability and is protected by the law if he or she has an "impairment" that "substantially limits" one or more "major life activities."

What is an impairment?

The concept of "impairment" includes physiological as well as mental or psychological conditions. A physiological impairment is a disorder or condition, a cosmetic disfigurement or an anatomical loss affecting any of the major body systems. A psychological or mental impairment includes most disorders, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness and special learning disabilities. Under this inclusive definition of "impairment" a broad range of conditions have been protected under the ADA, including:


     Back Problems 






     Mobility Impairments

     Think, concentrate and interact with others

What is a major life activity? 

The term "major life activity" has been expansively defined. Court Decisions in various jurisdictions now include the ability to: 

     Provide self-care

     Perform manual task


     See, hear, speak





     Sit or stand

     Lift or reach

     Think, concentrate and interact with others

What does "substantially limits" mean?

The impairment must "substantially limit" one or more major life activities. A substantial limitation is more than inconvenient or bothersome. Determining whether an impairment is substantially limiting is done on a case-by-case basis.

The Supreme Court has emphasized that impairment must in fact limit an individual in his or her life. For example, individuals with severe depression are not protected by the law if medication allows them to perform their jobs without exhibiting any symptoms. A person with corrective lenses is not disabled if the glasses enable him or her to see. However, an individual with polio who wears a brace may still be disabled despite the fact that the brace enables participation in a number of physical activities, because the brace also limits the range of motion and causes a limp.

Is it still a disability if medication corrects the deficiencies caused by the impairment?

The determination of whether an individual's major life activities are "substantially limited" must take into account the effects of "mitigating measures."

Who is a "qualified employee"?

An individual with a disability must also be qualified in order to be protected from discrimination by the ADA. A person with a disability is a qualified if he or she meets the legitimate skills, experience, education or other requirements of the position he or she seeks or holds.

Reprinted by permission of author

Contributing: Jane Howard-Martin is a graduate of Harvard Law School and has practiced employment law for 15 years. E-mail her at

Copyright 2002. Jane Howard-Martin.

This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. State employment laws vary; make sure to check what those laws are.

Source:USA Today


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