Are Learning Disabilities Covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

Learning disabilities generally qualify as disabilities under the ADA.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees and job applicants with disabilities from discrimination. The law also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow people with disabilities to do their jobs.

The ADA doesn't list which conditions are disabilities. Instead, courts have to consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether the employee or job applicant has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Under this definition, learning disabilities generally meet the definition of disabilities under the ADA.

What Are Learning Disabilities?

A learning disability is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how the brain processes information. Someone with a learning disability has a harder time learning specific skills—mainly language skills (including verbal and written language) and mathematics skills.

The symptoms of a learning disability can go beyond having difficulty learning to read and write or do arithmetic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with learning disabilities can have difficulty with any of the following:

  • knowing right from left
  • recognizing patterns
  • sorting items by shape or size
  • understanding and following instructions
  • staying organized
  • remembering something that was just said or read
  • coordination when moving
  • doing tasks with their hands, like:
    • writing
    • using scissors, or
    • drawing, or
  • understanding how time works.

Learning disabilities range in severity and can also involve difficulties with organizational skills, time management, and social interaction.

To be diagnosed with a learning disability, someone's problems can't be attributed to any of the following:

  • low intelligence
  • vision or hearing problems
  • a neurological condition (like a stroke or tumor)
  • poor motivation
  • economic or environmental disadvantage, or
  • inadequate teaching.

What Disabilities Are Covered Under the ADA?

Legally speaking, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity or major bodily function. Major life activities are those activities that are important to daily life, such as hearing, communicating, learning, and caring for yourself. Major bodily functions include the functioning of your brain and neurological system.

Because most learning disabilities substantially limit major life activities like learning and communicating, they generally fall under the ADA's definition of disability. (42 U.S.C. § 12102.) In 2008, the United States Congress clarified that the definition of disability isn't intended to be a difficult standard to meet. You don't need to be unable to perform or even significantly limited in performing an activity to meet the standard of "substantially limited."

In determining whether someone with a learning disability (or any other disability) is protected by the ADA, the courts must now consider that person's ability to perform an activity in terms of manner and duration.

For example, if you have difficulty performing an activity or must expend significant energy or time—compared to the general population—to do the activity, you could have a disability. From this perspective, many learning disabilities, from dyslexia to auditory or visual processing disorders, can qualify as disabilities—depending on how they affect you.

List of Learning Disabilities Covered Under the ADA

Here are the primary types of learning disabilities that are covered by the ADA:

  • Dyslexia is difficulty acquiring and processing language. Someone with dyslexia will generally have difficulty learning to read, write, and spell. Dyslexia is the most common type of learning disability. (Learn more in our article on Dyslexia and the ADA.)
  • Dysgraphia is difficulty expressing thoughts in writing. Someone with dysgraphia might struggle with spelling, grammar, punctuation, and handwriting.
  • Dyscalculia is difficulty learning number-related concepts or using symbols and functions to do mathematics. Someone with dyscalculia generally has problems understanding quantities and ideas like more or less, memorizing math facts, and solving math problems.
  • Dyspraxia is difficulty with motor skills (movement and coordination) and can affect writing, typing, and speech development.
  • Auditory processing disorder (which can include language processing disorder) is difficulty processing sounds (and spoken language).

Nonverbal learning disorder and visual perception/visual motor deficit disorder can also be protected under the ADA.

Children who come from low-income households and have specific learning disabilities can also qualify for disability benefits through the SSI program.

Types of ADA-Protected Disabilities

The ADA doesn't only protect employees with admitted learning disabilities. The ADA also protects all of the following groups of employees and job applicants:

  • those who currently have a learning disability
  • those who have a history of a learning disability, and
  • those regarded by an employer—even incorrectly—as having a learning disability.

For example, someone who's been treated for cancer and is currently free of the disease can't be discriminated against based on that medical history. And, if an employer incorrectly assumes an employee's slight speech impediment stems from a disability, that employee is also protected from discrimination.

Reasonable Accommodations for Learning Disabilities

The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow qualified people with disabilities to do their jobs. (42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5).) Reasonable accommodations fall into three categories:

  • changes to the job application process
  • changes that allow an employee to perform the "essential functions" of the job, and
  • changes that ensure access to employee benefits and privileges.

Changing the Job Application Process

Changes to the job application process that will allow a qualified applicant with a learning disability to apply and be considered for the position are reasonable accommodations. For example, someone with dyslexia might require more time to take a written test.

Accommodations That Allow You to Do Your Job

Workplace changes that enable a qualified person with a disability to perform the job's essential functions can include adjustments to any of the following:

  • the work environment
  • the circumstances in which the job is performed, or
  • the way the job is performed

For example, an employee with an auditory processing disorder might need to be allowed to tape-record meetings or to receive assignments in writing.

Access to Employee Benefits and Privileges

Reasonable accommodations include changes that enable an employee with a disability to enjoy the same benefits and privileges as other employees. For example, an employee with a learning disability might need a screen reader to take advantage of the company's online training and development programs.

How to File an ADA Discrimination Complaint

What if an employer discriminates against you because of your learning disability? Whether you were discriminated against at your workplace or when applying for a job, you can file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). And you must do so before you can take an employer to court.

Don't delay. You have a limited amount of time to file a discrimination charge (generally 180 calendar days after the discriminatory act took place). Holidays and weekends count toward the time limit.

There are two ways to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC:

You can file a discrimination charge with your state's Fair Employment Practices Agency (FEPA) or the EEOC. Usually, when you file a charge with one, it's shared with the other (called "dual filing").

What If You Need Help Asserting Your Rights?

If you believe you're facing discrimination because of a learning disability, consider talking to an experienced disability attorney. An attorney understands how the EEOC and your state's FEPA enforcement processes work. Plus, a lawyer can help you:

  • negotiate with your employer
  • strategize about how to discuss your disability at work, and
  • assert your rights before an administrative agency or in court, if necessary.

Learn more about hiring an employment discrimination lawyer.

Updated March 15, 2024

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