ADA Definition of Disability

By Cindy Powell


To understand who is protected by the ADA, it is important to know how the ADA determines disability. The ADA uses a three-part definition of disability. The ADA definition of disability is not the same as in other laws, such as state workers' compensation or other federal or state laws that provide benefits for people and veterans with disabilities.

To be considered a person with a disability under the ADA, an individual must only meet ONE part of the three-part definition.  The determination of whether a person has a disability is made on a case-by-case basis. Under the ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who:

1)     Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more
major life activities

  • Physical impairment:  a physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the body systems
  • Mental impairment: any mental or psychological disorder; Examples:
  • Intellectual disability
  • Organic brain syndrome
  • Psychiatric disability
  • Traumatic brain injury

"Stress" and "depression" are conditions that may (diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having an identified mental or physiological disorder) or may not (because of job or personal life pressures) be considered impairments.

  • Major life activity: an activity most people can perform with little or no difficulty;  Examples:
  • Seeing                        
  • Hearing
  • Eating
  • Sleeping
  • Caring for oneself
  • Performing manual tasks                                                                                                          
  • Walking
  • Standing
  • Lifting
  • Bending
  • Major bodily functions:
    • Cell growth
    • Neurological
    • Immune system                                                                                               
    • Endocrine
    • Digestive, Bowel
    • Bladder
    • Circulatory
    • Reproductive

2) Has a record of such impairment:

  • History of a disability, regardless of whether they currently are substantially limited in
    a major life activity
  • History of cancer, heart disease, or other debilitating condition, whose conditions are cured, controlled or in remission
  • History of psychiatric disability
  • Erroneously classified as having an intellectual disability in the past

3) Is regarded as having such an impairment: 

  • Perceived as having disabilities based on stereotypes, fears, or misconceptions
  • Impairment that is not substantially limiting but is perceived by the covered entity
    as substantially limiting
  • Impairment that is substantially limiting only because of the attitudes of others
  • Has no impairment but be regarded by the covered entity as having a substantially limiting impairment

Contrary to Congress’ intent to be inclusive, for over 18 years the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the ADA definition of “disability”. The Supreme Court’s narrow scope of the definition of “disability” made it difficult for people with epilepsy, diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other diseases to claim protection from discrimination based upon disability under the ADA.

To qualify as a person with a disability under the ADA, an individual must be unable to perform, or be substantially limited in the ability to perform, a major life activity compared to an average person in the general population.


Three factors in determining if a person's impairment substantially limits a major life activity are:

  • Nature and severity of the impairment
    • It is not the name of an impairment or condition, but its effect on the individual’s
      life; for instance, a person with mild cerebral palsy that only slightly interferes with their speech and has little impact on other major life activities would likely not be considered as an individual with a disability under the ADA definition.
    • An individual may have two or more impairments, neither of which by itself substantially limits a major life activity, but together do.
  • Duration or expected duration of the impairment
  • Permanent, long term, or expected impact from the impairment


On September 25, 2008, after it was unanimously passed by Congress, President Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). Since 1990, the Supreme Court considered mitigating measures - medications, hearing aids, and prosthetic devices - when determining whether an individual has a disability under the ADA.


The ADAAA specifies that mitigating measures shall no longer be considered when assessing whether an individual has a disability. Therefore, people whose conditions can sometimes be controlled by medication will now be protected. The ADAAA also covers impairments that can go into remission if the impairment would substantially limit a major life activity when active.


Prior to the ADAAA, the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of "major life activity," requiring that the activity be something of central importance to most people's daily lives. The ADAAA expands the definition of "major life activities" by including two lists including, but not limited to:

  • Activities that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has acknowledged (e.g., walking) as well as activities that EEOC has not specifically recognized (e.g., reading, bending, and communicating); and
  • Major bodily functions (immune system, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions).

The provisions of ADA Amendments Actbecame enforceable on January 1, 2009.  

Though the ADA protects people with disabilities from being discriminated against on the basis of their disability, the ADA does not entitle people with disabilities to jobs, benefits, programs or services for which they are not otherwise qualified.


For example, a Meals on Wheels program requiring that participants who receive meals must be 55 years or older is not required to serve a 50-year-old person who has a disability, regardless of how much that person might need the service.

Also protected from disability-based discrimination are people who are associated with individuals with disabilities. For example, if a sports arena refuses to admit a person as a result of her mobility impairment and her sister, the arena would be discriminating against both individuals.

Under the ADA, a qualified person with a disability is someone who meets a program’s eligibility requirements with or without:

  • reasonable modifications to rules, policies or practices,
  • auxiliary (communications) aids and services, or
  • removal of architectural, communications or transportation barriers.

The ADA requires employers to focus on the essential functions of a job to determine whether an applicant or employee with a disability is qualified. A qualified individual with a disability is someone who “satisfies the skills, experience, educational and other job-related requirements of the position, and who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of such position.”  Once again, an employer is not required to hire or retain an individual with a disability who is not qualified to perform the job.

The ADA prohibits retaliation or coercion after a qualified person with a disability or their associate has filed a discrimination complaint with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).  For example, if a state tax office delays a tax refund for an individual who filed a complaint regarding inaccessibility of their office, the state has illegally retaliated against the complainant.  Another example of unlawful retaliation is a restaurant refusing to serve a customer who filed an ADA complaint against the restaurant.

Over the past four decades, Disability Educator and Sign Language Instructor Cindy Powell has advised businesses, employers, government agencies and nonprofits about best practices with people with disabilities.


Cindy provides customized training on the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), tax incentives and other helpful topics, such as disability etiquette and service animals. Ms. Powell also provides customized sign language training.


Cindy has served on local, state and national disability organization Boards of Directors. Ms. Powell was recipient of International Association of Workforce Professionals' 2006 Services to Specialized Populations award. Cindy’s disability articles appear in print and online.


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