Is Your Back or Neck Pain A Disability Under the ADA?

If your back pain or neck pain qualify as a disability under the ADA, you are entitled to a reasonable accommodation from your employer.

By , J.D.

Do you suffer from back pain that interferes with your ability to work? If so, you're not alone. According to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, almost 30% of American adults report low back pain. And, almost 15% report neck pain. These conditions can interfere with sleep, make basic work tasks difficult, and get in the way of our enjoyment of our everyday lives.

Depending on the symptoms and severity of back and neck pain, these conditions can qualify as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Why is this important? Because employers have a legal obligation to make reasonable accommodations for disabilities under the ADA. If your back or neck pain is a disability, you may be entitled to accommodations like light duty work, time off, assistive devices (such as machinery to assist with lifting and moving or adjustable office equipment like a sit-stand desk or a tilting work surface), and other modifications.

How the ADA Defines Disabilities

Under the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The ADA doesn't provide a list of conditions that always are (or are not) disabilities. Instead, the law focuses on how your condition affects you.

Physical or Mental Impairments

An impairment is a physiological condition or disorder, a cosmetic disfigurement, or an anatomical loss that affects at least one system of the body. For example, if you have a back injury or severe arthritis in your neck that affects your musculoskeletal system, that qualifies as an impairment.

Major Life Activities

Major life activities are tasks that are basic to our daily lives, such as walking, seeing, hearing, sleeping, lifting, pushing and pulling, standing, sitting, reaching, communicating, eating, thinking, breathing, learning, reading, working, performing manual tasks, or caring for oneself. Major bodily functions are also included. For example, if you have an impairment that substantially limits the proper functioning of your immune system, neurological system, musculoskeletal system, cell growth, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, and so on, that qualifies as a substantial limitation on a major life activity.

Substantial Limitation

You don't have to be completely unable to perform a major life activity to qualify as having a substantial limitation. You don't even have to be severely or significantly limited in performing the activity. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says that your employer should consider the condition, duration, and manner of your ability to perform an activity in assessing whether a life activity is substantially limited. For example:

  • Is it more difficult or does it take more time for you to perform the activity? If your back pain doesn't prevent you from walking, but requires you to walk more slowly and carefully, for example, that might qualify.
  • Does it cause you pain to perform the activity? Your back pain might not make it impossible for you to lift heavy boxes, for instance, but might make it extremely painful for you to do so.
  • Can you perform the activity only for a limited amount of time? If your back pain prevents you from sitting for more than an hour without a break, for instance, that might be a substantial limitation.

Is Your Back or Neck Pain a Disability?

Many conditions that cause back or neck pain will likely qualify as disabilities under the ADA, for which you are entitled to a reasonable accommodation. If you have only transitory or minor pain, you may not have a disability as it's legally defined. However, if your condition makes it difficult or painful for you to perform daily activities, or significantly interferes with your ability to sleep, sit, lift, stand, walk, and so on, you likely will qualify as having a disability under the ADA.

Requesting a Workplace Accommodation

If you believe you have a disability under the ADA, and you are finding it difficult or painful to perform your job, you should talk to your employer about reasonable accommodations. Your employer must provide an accommodation—a change to your workplace or job that will enable you to perform the basic functions of your position despite your disability. Learn more about requesting and negotiating a reasonable accommodation.

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