Is Dyslexia a Disability Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

Learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, likely qualify as protected disabilities under the ADA, because they substantially limit major life activities such as reading and learning.

By , J.D.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities from discrimination. It also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for qualified employees with disabilities (those who can perform the job's essential functions, with or without such accommodation), as long as the accommodation wouldn't create undue hardship for the employer.

The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, including major bodily functions. Rather than providing a list of conditions that always qualify as disabilities, the ADA requires courts to make an individual assessment of each case, looking at how the person is affected by the condition. Because major life activities include reading, learning, and the proper functioning of the neurological system, people whose dyslexia affects these activities will likely be found to have a disability -- and therefore, to be protected by the ADA.

What Is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a neurological disorder that interferes with a person's ability to process language. People with dyslexia may have difficulties with reading, writing, spelling, and sometimes arithmetic. Dyslexia can vary in severity, from mild to extreme.

What Is a Disability?

Under the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment (including a learning disability) that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Major life activities include basic activities that the average person can do with little or no difficulty, such as standing, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, learning, taking care of oneself, and so on. They also include major bodily functions: the proper functioning of bodily systems, such as the reproductive, neurological, endocrine, or digestive system.

In 2008, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). One of the main purposes of the ADAAA was to tell courts that they were interpreting the term "disability" too narrowly. As a result, too many people were being excluded from the protections of the ADA. The ADAAA clarified that whether a person has a disability wasn't intended to be a high hurdle; instead, courts should read the law in a way that provides broad coverage. Rather than focusing on whether a person has a disability, the main inquiry in most cases should be whether the employer discriminated. This change is intended to result in a more generous definition of "disability," with the result that more people are protected by the law.

Dyslexia as a Disability

Unless an employee has such a mild form of dyslexia that its effects are barely noticeable, dyslexia should qualify as a disability under the ADA. Generally, dyslexia restricts the ability to learn, read, and process information. Because it is a neurological disorder, it may also qualify as a restriction on a major bodily function.

Not every person who is limited in performing a major life activity has a disability: The restriction must result from an impairment. For example, a person who has extreme difficulty reading due to poor education alone does not have a disability. However, a person whose difficulty reading stems from dyslexia or another recognized learning disability is probably protected by the ADA.

Reasonable Accommodations

An employer must make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. The employee must be otherwise qualified for the job and able to perform its essential functions, with or without the accommodation. The employer need not provide the accommodation if it poses an undue hardship: undue burden or expense, given the employer's size, resources, and nature. For example, providing a full-time assistant to read aloud and write for an employee with dyslexia is almost certainly an undue hardship. The type of business might make even an affordable accommodation an undue hardship. For example, while providing voice-recognition software might be a reasonable accommodation for an employee with dyslexia, it might not fit into a library or other work environment that must maintain silence. However, the employee could use headphones or perform keyboarding activities in a separate office with a door that can be closed.

Getting Legal Help

If you have suffered discrimination as a result of dyslexia, you should consult with an experienced lawyer. A lawyer can help you assess your situation and determine the best way to proceed.

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