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What Is a 'Disability' Under the ADA?

By Deanne Katz, Esq. | Last updated on

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects persons with disabilities, but what is a disability?

A better question would be "what is a disability under federal law?" Even if it's what someone else would call a disability, you don't qualify for protection if you don't fall under the government's definition.

Rather than defining disabilities by diagnosis or symptoms, federal protection for disabilities generally kicks in when a person has serious limitations that result from physical or mental impairments. It's the limitations that the laws are designed to help with.

According to federal law, a disability is any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a person from participating in "major life activities."

That doesn't mean marriages, births, and deaths. It means that the basic components of a person's life, such as walking, talking, or learning, can't be performed adequately because of the impairment.

While not all conditions are covered, needing a wheelchair or other assistive device, blindness, and deafness are all recognized disabilities. In general, if you can show your impairment affects your abilities to perform basic life activities, it could qualify as a disability.

The next question is what having a disability means under the law.

Legally, there are two basic things persons with disabilities are entitled to, although they're split into four categories. Those things are equal opportunities for employment and access to public spaces and housing.

Employers aren't allowed to discriminate against persons with disabilities during the application process or if those people are hired as employees. If a job has physical demands that a person with disabilities can't perform, the employer is required to first make reasonable accommodations.

Accommodations that are very expensive or that interfere with work productivities are generally not considered reasonable. But there are lots of inexpensive accommodations available.

The other protection covers access. Government buildings and public transportation are required to be accessible to everyone.

Other buildings open to the public, such as shops and hotels, and housing available for rent, must have accommodations available if they are not fully accessible already.

Unfortunately, not everyone follows the rules without a push.

If you have a disability and your rights were violated by an employer or a business, you can hold them accountable. Find an attorney who will stand up for you to help you build a case.

Just because you have a disability according to federal law doesn't mean the law treats you as any less of a person. You're entitled to extra protections so that others don't treat you that way either.

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