The ADA defines ‘disability’ as:
A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual … or a record of such an impairment … or being regarded as having such an impairment.
The ADA covers more than just people who are deaf, blind, or use wheelchairs. It also covers:
- People who have physical conditions, such as medical disorders, cosmetic disfigurement and severe damage or loss to a body part or system. Examples include: epilepsy, paralysis, diabetes, MS, HIV infection, or severe forms of arthritis, hypertension or carpal tunnel syndrome. Also alcoholism.
- People with mental impairments, such as mental illness or retardation, learning disabilities and psychological disorders. Examples include: major depression, bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, dyslexia, and mental retardation.
But, when dealing with ADA issues, you should avoid engaging in medical diagnosis. Instead, focus on the effect a disability has on a person’s life.
Which takes us to major life activities. Nothing mysterious here — seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, learning, caring for oneself, working, etc.
Thus far, we’ve been talking about actual impairments. The ADA also covers:
- A person with a record of any such impairment. For example, cancer that is now in remission, a recovering alcoholic, or a person who has recovered from mental illness.
- A person who is regarded as having such impairment, particularly if you were to act based on myths, fears, or stereotypes. For example, although AIDS is a disability, homosexuality is not. However, if an employer were to treat gay persons as if they had AIDS, that would be covered under ADA.
- A person who is associated with people with disabilities. For example: A person whose spouse has a disability and the employer is concerned about excessive absenteeism or health insurance costs. Or someone who does volunteer work for people with AIDS and there’s an unwarranted fear of infection.
Not all physical or mental conditions are covered, however. The following are not protected under ADA:
- Minor, non-chronic conditions of short duration, such as a sprain, broken limb, or flu.
- Individuals who currently engage in the illegal use of drugs.
- Advanced age or pregnancy. [These are covered by other laws, but not as disabilities.]
- Compulsive gambling, kleptomania and pyromania.
- Homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestitism, sexual behavior disorders.* [Homosexuality and bisexuality are protected by many state and local laws, though not as disabilities.]
- Job performance limitations due strictly to environmental, cultural or economic factors such as poverty. Example: Inability to read due to dyslexia is covered; but if due to lack of education, it is not covered.
- Job performance problems due strictly to personality or character traits, e.g., irresponsibility, bad temper, computer phobia, shyness.
* [NOTE: This grouping of sexual orientation with behavior disorders is as it is presented in federal government publications, not as the authors would have arranged it.]