Who Is an Individual With a Disability?

For purposes of nondiscrimination laws (e.g. the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act), a person with a disability is generally defined as someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities," (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.  Disability determinations must be made “without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures” such as medication, hearing aids, other technology, reasonable accommodations, “learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications” or other such interventions – with the exception of ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses.

Disability Status Definitions

  • Physical Impairment

A physical impairment is defined as any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.

  • Mental Impairment

A mental impairment is defined as any mental or psychological disorder, such as intellectual disabilities (formerly called "mental retardation"), organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.

  • Substantially Limits

An impairment only qualifies as a “disability” under the ADA if it substantially limits one or more major life activities. The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity must be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures such as: Medication, medical supplies, equipment, or appliances, low-vision devices (which do not include ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses), prosthetics including limbs and devices, hearing aids and cochlear implants or other implantable hearing devices, mobility devices, or oxygen therapy equipment and supplies; Use of assistive technology; Reasonable accommodations or auxiliary aids or services; or Learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications. The ameliorative effects of the mitigating measures of ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses shall be considered in determining whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity. The term “ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses” means lenses that are intended to fully correct visual acuity or eliminate refractive error. The term “low-vision devices” means devices that magnify, enhance, or otherwise augment a visual image.

  • Major Life Activities

In order for a disability to be covered by the ADA, an impairment must substantially limit one or more major life activities. Examples include but are not limited to caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, working, and the operation of a major bodily function including but not limited to functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

  • Record of a Substantially Limiting Condition

An individual meets the requirements of "having record of a substantially limiting condition" if the individual has a history of an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity but who has recovered from the impairment. Examples of individuals who have a history of impairments are persons who have histories of mental or emotional illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, heart disease, or cancer.

  • Regarded as having such an impairment

An individual meets the requirement of “being regarded as having such an impairment” if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to a prohibited action because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment, whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity. The ADA protects certain persons who are regarded by a private entity as having a physical or mental impairment against adverse actions based on that belief.

  • Reasonable Accommodation

Reasonable accommodation is a critical component of the ADA’s assurance of nondiscrimination. It is any change in the work environment, or in the way things are usually done, that results in equal employment opportunity for an individual with a disability. An employer must make a reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of a qualified applicant or employee with a disability, unless it can show that the accommodation would cause an undue hardship. Some examples of reasonable accommodations include: Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to, and usable by, an individual with a disability; Restructuring a job, modifying work schedules, reassigning to a vacant position; Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices; Modifying examinations, training materials, or policies providing qualified readers or interpreters. An employer is not required to lower quality or quantity standards to make an accommodation; nor is an employer obligated to provide personal use items, such as glasses, hearing aids, or wheelchairs as accommodations.