Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) protections and limitations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment. The ADA covers discrimination in public services and places of public accommodation, and it also has certain miscellaneous provisions, including the Act’s anti-retaliation provision.

On September 25, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADA Amendments Act” or “ADAAA”). The ADAAA went into effect on January 1, 2009, and it was specifically designed to reject a string of Supreme Court decisions that had narrowed the broad scope of protection originally afforded by Congress under the ADA.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the ADA Amendments Act:

  • Directs EEOC to revise that portion of its regulations defining the term “substantially limits”;
  • Expands the definition of “major life activities” by including two non-exhaustive lists: the first list includes many activities that the EEOC has recognized (e.g., walking) as well as activities that EEOC has not specifically recognized (e.g., reading, bending, and communicating); the second list includes major bodily functions (e.g., “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions”);
  • States that mitigating measures other than “ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses” shall not be considered in assessing whether an individual has a disability;
  • Clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active;
  • Provides that an individual subjected to an action prohibited by the ADA (e.g., failure to hire) because of an actual or perceived impairment will meet the “regarded as” definition of disability, unless the impairment is transitory and minor;
  • Provides that individuals covered only under the “regarded as” prong are not entitled to reasonable accommodation; and
  • Emphasizes that the definition of “disability” should be interpreted broadly.

The ADA Amendments Act specifically authorizes the EEOC, Department of Justice, and Department of Transportation to interpret the definition of disability.

Disability defined

The ADA of 1990 prohibited discrimination against a “qualified individual with a disability.” The ADAAA revised the law to prohibit discrimination against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” The ADAAA also significantly expanded the definition of disability and provides that “[t]he definition of disability … shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals … to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of [the ADAAA].”

The ADA defines a “disability” as:

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual; or
  • A record of such an impairment; or
  • Being regarded as having such an impairment.

Because the ADA and ADAAA definition of disability is unique, classifications of disability by government or private disability benefits providers do not establish disability for ADA purposes. In addition, you are not necessarily prohibited from pursuing an ADA employment discrimination claim because you applied for disability benefits and asserted that you were unable to work. However, if you do, you must be prepared to explain why your claim of total disability in your application for benefits is not inconsistent with an ADA claim that you can perform the essential elements of a job.