Does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Cover Short-Term Illnesses?

The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities from discrimination. Under the ADA, a temporary condition that lasts only briefly (such as a cold or the flu) doesn't count as a disability. However, a short-term illness or other impairment that has long-lasting effects or is a symptom of an underlying disabling condition may qualify as a disability. 

How the ADA Defines a Disability

The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Although certain conditions (such as cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or schizophrenia) will virtually always qualify as disabilities, the ADA requires an individual assessment. Courts must consider the facts of each case, taking into account the person's condition and how it affects their ability to perform basic functions. 

In 2008, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which modified the ADA. One of the primary purposes of the ADAAA was to correct what Congress saw as an overly stingy attitude by courts about what constitutes a disability. The ADAAA and the regulations adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission interpreting the new law make clear that the term "disability" should be interpreted broadly, not narrowly construed in order to exclude employees from protection. Rather than spending a lot of time determining whether or not someone has a disability, courts should focus on whether the employer has met its obligations under the law.

Activities Constituting Major Life Activities Under the ADA

Major life activities are basic activities that the average person can perform with little or no difficulty. They include:

  • walking
  • seeing
  • sitting
  • hearing
  • speaking
  • breathing
  • learning
  • lifting
  • performing manual tasks, and
  • taking care of oneself. 

The ADAAA added "major bodily functions" to the list of major life activities. This change was intended to protect those who have serious medical conditions but may not always suffer evident, day-to-day effects. Major bodily functions include the proper working of bodily processes, functions, or systems, such as the immune system, normal cell growth, and the digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. 

Mitigating Measures and Chronic Conditions

The ADAAA makes clear that courts must consider whether a person has a disability without taking into account any measures the person takes to minimize or control its symptoms (except for regular glasses or contact lenses). For example, a court should consider how diabetes affects someone's major life activities, not at how well the person can perform those activities when his or her diabetes is controlled with insulin. 

Chronic conditions can qualify as disabilities even when they are not active. A condition that causes periodic flareups (such as Crohn's disease) will qualify as a disability if it meets the definition in its active state. Similarly, a person whose cancer is in remission will qualify as having a disability if that condition, when active, met the definition. 

How Short-Term Illnesses and Conditions Are Handled

Under the ADA, temporary conditions don't qualify as disabilities. The EEOC has found that conditions lasting only a few days or weeks and having no long-term or permanent effects on the person's health will not qualify as disabilities. For example, colds, the flu, broken bones, and sprains generally won't qualify as disabilities, assuming they don't have serious, long-term consequences. Pregnancy also doesn't count as a disability. 

A short-term illness or other condition that has long-term complications may qualify as a disability. For example, if an employee breaks his leg and must be in a cast and use crutches for six weeks, that generally wouldn't be a disability. However, if the employee's leg doesn't heal properly, and the employee is permanently unable to walk for more than a few minutes without pain, that would likely be a disability. Similarly, an employee who suffers a mild concussion in a bike accident, but recovers fully within a few days, likely does not have a disability. If, however, the employee suffers brain damage as a result of the accident, that would generally qualify as a disability. 

As explained above, conditions that are permanent but result in only temporary periods of actual disability also qualify as disabilities. For example, a person with epilepsy generally will be found to have a disability, even though she rarely has seizures, and the few seizures she does have last for no more than a minute or two. 

Getting Legal Help

If your employer has discriminated against you because of your disability, you should consult with an experienced lawyer. You have the legal right to be free from discrimination based on your disability, and to receive reasonable accommodation for your disability, if your employer can provide it without undue hardship. Unfortunately, many employers are unfamiliar with the requirements of the ADA or unclear about what constitutes a disability that's protected under the law. A lawyer can help you assess your situation and decide how to proceed.