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

Learning disabilities generally qualify as disabilities under the ADA.

By , J.D.

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

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

What Is a Disability?

Legally speaking, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, including major bodily functions. The ADA protects not only those who currently have a disability, but also those who have a history of disability or are regarded by their employer, incorrectly, as having a disability. For example, someone has been treated for cancer and is currently free of disease may not be discriminated against based on that medical history. And, someone who is regarded as disabled incorrectly -- for instance, because he or she has a slight speech impediment which the employer incorrectly assumes stems from a disability -- is protected from discrimination as well.

Major life activities are those activities that are important to daily life, such as breathing, walking, seeing, learning, or caring for oneself. Major functions of the body, such as the proper functioning of the immune system, neurological system, or immune system, are also considered major life activities.

As you can see from these definitions, many learning disabilities will qualify as disabilities under the ADA. By definition, most learning disabilities substantially limit the affected person's ability to learn. And, Congress clarified recently that this is not intended to be a difficult standard to meet. A person need not be unable to perform or even significantly limited in performing an activity to be substantially limited. Courts must now consider the condition, manner, and duration of the person's ability to perform an activity. For example, a person who has difficulty performing an activity or who must expend significant energy, compared to the general population, in order to do so, could have a disability. From this perspective, many learning disabilities, from dyslexia to processing disorders to ADD, might qualify as disabilities, depending on how they affect the person.

Reasonable Accommodations

An employer must make reasonable accommodations to allow qualified people with disabilities to do their jobs. Reasonable accommodations fall into three categories:

  • Changes to the job application process that will allow a qualified applicant with a disability to apply and be considered for the position. For example, someone with dyslexia might require more time to take a written test.
  • Changes to the work environment, the circumstances in which the job is performed, or the way the job is performed that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the job's essential functions. For example, an employee with ADD might need to work in an office with sound-reduction barriers, or someone with auditory processing problems might need to be allowed to tape record meetings or to receive assignments in writing.
  • Changes to enable an employee with a disability to enjoy the same benefits and privileges as other employees.

If You Need Help

If you believe you are facing discrimination because of a learning disability, consider talking to an experienced disability attorney. An attorney can help you negotiate with your employer, strategize about how to discuss your disability at work, and, if all else fails, help you assert your rights before an administrative agency or in court.

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