Detailed in 45 CFR § 1181.103(4), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability, specifically a “handicapped person,” as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”
This definition, unique from that of other laws and agencies, is a legal – not a medical – term. People who meet this definition are protected under the ADA against discrimination in employment, transportation, and public accommodations.
What does the ADA consider an “impairment”?
If you have a physiological, mental, or psychological impairment, you are protected under the ADA. In many cases, it is reasonably clear as to whether or not someone has an impairment, such as with a substantial limitation or confirmed medical diagnosis.
With other people, however, an impairment may not be as straightforward or clear. The ADA does not provide a comprehensive list of conditions or characteristics that deem someone disabled, but it does provide two broad definitions:
- Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one of more of the body’s major systems, including neurological; musculoskeletal; respiratory; speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; skin; or endocrine.
- Any mental or psychological disorder, including mental retardation, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities, as well as diseases and conditions such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, drug addiction, and alcoholism.
“The definition of impairment does not include physical characteristics (e.g., left-handedness or normal height or weight deviations), common personality traits (e.g., a quick temper), pregnancy, and cultural or economic disadvantages,” as the Employee and Disability Institute at Cornell University explains.
What rights are afforded under the ADA?
The ADA, enacted by President George H.W. Bush in June of 1990, was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA). Essentially an “equal opportunity” law for people with disabilities, it provides the same types of protections for disabled persons that the CRA provided for people on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
The list of protections the ADA provides is notably extensive. Below are just a few examples.
Employment rights – Under the ADA, employers must provide people with disabilities an equal chance to the same benefits and opportunities that they provide to others. Employers are prohibited from discriminating in recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, pay, social activities, and other privileges of employment. They also have to make reasonable accommodations for employees with known physical or mental limitations.
Public Transportation – Public transportation authorities, including those of city buses and subways, must make a good faith effort to lease assessable vehicles, meet accessibly requirements for new vehicles, re-manufactured buses in an accessible manner, and, unless it would result in an undue financial burden, provide para-transit (special transit system for disabled persons) where they operate fixed-route bus or rail systems.
Public Accommodations – Under the ADA, businesses and entities that offer public accommodations are prohibited from discrimination practices such as exclusion, segregation, and unequal treatment. They also have to make sure their facilities meet architectural accessibility standards, and that they are able to effectively communicate with people who have hearing, vision, or speech impairments.
What do I do if I have been discriminated against because of a disability?
If an employer or company discriminated against you due to your disability, you may be entitled to file a disability discrimination claim. Winning such a claim would not only entitle you to damages, but it might also pave the way to correct the incident in question.
In order to prevail, you will need proof that: 1) you meet the ADA’s definition of disabled, and 2) you were discriminated against because of your disability.