Discrimination Laws: What Is a Disability?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability discrimination.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability discrimination against applicants and employees. However, not every person with an impairment is covered by the ADA. Only those who have disabilities within the law's definition are protected from discrimination. 

Three Categories of Disability

Under the ADA, there are three broad categories of disabilities. A person is protected by the ADA if:

  • the person has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity
  • the person has a history or record of such an impairment, or
  • the person is regarded by the employer, even incorrectly, as having such a disability. 

In other words, an employee or applicant need not have an actual, current disability to be protected by the law. Suppose, for example, an applicant had a stroke several years ago, but has fully recovered. An employer who refused to hire that applicant due to this history would be violating the ADA, because the employer is acting based on the applicant's record of disability. 

Similarly, an employer who refuses to hire an applicant with a slight limp, based on the employer's incorrect assumption that the employee will not be able to walk or stand as required by the job, has also violated the ADA. This employer is regarding the applicant, incorrectly, as having a disability. 

Major Life Activities

An employee's impairment must substantially limit one or more major life activities to qualify as a disability. Major life activities include functions that are important in everyday life, such as:

  • walking
  • seeing
  • sitting
  • hearing
  • speaking
  • breathing
  • learning
  • manual tasks
  • self-care activities
  • lifting, and
  • reading.

They also include major bodily functions, such as proper cell growth and the proper functioning of the body's reproductive, digestive, neurological, and other systems. These functions are included so that conditions which are in remission or have not yet shown outward manifestations will still count as disabilities. 

Qualified Person With a Disability

The ADA protects qualified people with disabilities. In other words, an employer doesn't have to hire or retain someone simply because that person has a disability: The person must be qualified for the job. This means that the person must have the necessary degrees, licenses, experience, and so on for the job. It also means that the person must be able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.