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

The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't generally protect employees with minor, temporary conditions; learn the rules here.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities from discrimination. Conditions that are minor and temporary (such as a cold or flu) don't count as disabilities under the ADA. But a short-term illness or other impairment may qualify as a disability if it's severe.

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.

Qualifying as Disabled Under the ADA

Certain conditions will virtually always qualify as disabilities under the ADA, such as:

  • cancer
  • diabetes
  • multiple sclerosis (MS), and
  • schizophrenia.

But the ADA still requires individual assessments in each case. Courts must consider the facts of each case, taking into account the person's condition and how it affects the performance of basic functions.

Amending the ADA to Protect More People

In 2008, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which modified the Americans with Disabilities Act. 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 (EEOC) make clear that the term "disability" should be interpreted broadly. Under the ADAAA, if you file a discrimination complaint against an employer—rather than spending a lot of time determining whether or not you have a disability—the court should focus on whether you've met its obligations under the law.

What Are Major Life Activities Under the ADA?

If your condition substantially limits one or more major life activities, you'll generally be considered disabled under the ADA. Major life activities are basic activities that the average person can perform with little or no difficulty. They include things like:

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

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 might not always suffer obvious, 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
  • bodily functions, including:
    • digestive
    • bowel
    • bladder
    • neurological
    • brain
    • respiratory
    • circulatory
    • endocrine, and
    • reproductive.

How the ADA Treats Chronic Conditions

The ADA Amendments Act makes clear that courts must consider whether you have a disability without taking into account any measures you take to minimize or control your symptoms. The exception is wearing regular glasses or contact lenses. (You won't be considered disabled under the ADA just because you can't see very well without your glasses.)

But this rule applies to other chronic conditions. For example, if you have diabetes, the court should consider how your diabetes affects your major life activities. But it shouldn't consider how well you might perform those activities when your diabetes is controlled with insulin.

Chronic conditions can qualify as disabilities under the ADA—even when they‘re not active. For instance, a condition that causes periodic flare-ups (such as Crohn's disease) will qualify as a disability under the ADA if it meets the definition in its active state. Similarly, if you've had cancer, but it's in remission, you'll still qualify as having a disability if your cancer, when active, would meet the definition.

How the ADA Views Short-Term Illnesses and Conditions

Under the ADA, temporary conditions that are minor don't qualify as disabilities. For example, colds, the flu, and sprains generally won't qualify as disabilities, assuming they don't have serious, long-term consequences.

Pregnancy and the ADA

Normal pregnancy generally doesn't qualify as a disability under the ADA. But in the weeks before childbirth, it's treated as a short-term disability in some states.

Certain conditions associated with pregnancy (such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia) almost certainly do qualify as disabilities under the ADA. Although these conditions might be temporary, their consequences and effect on major life activities can be severe.

When Short-Term Illnesses and Conditions Qualify as Disabilities

A short-term illness or other condition that has long-term complications might also qualify as a disability under the ADA. For example, if you suffer a mild concussion in a bike accident, but recover fully within a few days, you likely don't have a disability. If, however, you have brain damage as a result of the accident, that would generally qualify as a disability under the ADA.

Conditions that are permanent but result in only temporary periods of actual disability also qualify as disabilities under the ADA. For example, let's suppose you have epilepsy. You'll generally be considered disabled under the ADA, even if you rarely have seizures, and the few seizures you do have last for no more than a minute or two.

Getting Legal Help for Your ADA Claim

If your employer has discriminated against you because of a short-term disability, you should consult with an experienced employment discrimination lawyer. If you're disabled, you have legal rights, including:

  • being free from discrimination based on your disability, and
  • receiving reasonable accommodation (if your employer can provide it without undue hardship).

Unfortunately, many employers are unfamiliar with the requirements of the ADA or unclear about which medical conditions are protected under the law. A lawyer can help you assess your situation and decide how to proceed.

Updated January 12, 2023

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