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July 1st, 2013 by

Photo of Valerie Malzer

By Valerie Malzer

Employer Assistance and Resource Network, Cornell University


Given the diversity and prevalence of disability, it is critical that employers understand what disability is – both practically and legally – in order to ensure an inclusive workplace for all their workers.

For many, the word “disability” conjures images of individuals using wheelchairs or who are blind or deaf, but disability and the protections offered to individuals with disabilities go far beyond these common examples to encompass a wide range of impairments. Disability is not only diverse, it is part of the human experience and it affects all individuals at some point in their life, either directly or through a family member or close friend.[1]

A Basic Definition of Disability

A functional definition of disability focuses on three areas:

  1. Impairments: problems with body function or alterations in body structure (e.g., paralysis, blindness).
  2. Activity limitations: difficulties executing activities (e.g., walking, eating).
  3. Participation restrictions: problems with involvement in an area of life (e.g., lack of access to accessible transportation systems). [2]

In addition, the environment can act as a facilitator or barrier for individuals with disabilities. For example, for a person who uses a wheelchair, disability may be more salient in a multistory building without an elevator than in a building that is fully accessible.

Disabilities can be visible or invisible, temporary or long term, chronic or episodic.

A Legal Definition of Disability: The ADA

While the description above provides a broad conceptualization of disability, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Amendments Act (ADAAA) provide a more specific legal definition of disability that is critical to many entities in the U.S., including employers.

The ADAAA defines disability as:

(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;

(B) a record of such an impairment; or

(C) being regarded as having such an impairment[3]

Key to this definition are the terms “physical or mental impairment” and “major life activities”. The ADAAA defines these as:

Physical or mental impairment

Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems (e.g., neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin and endocrine); OR any mental or psychological disorder (e.g., intellectual disability, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.)

Major life activities

Major life activities 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, and working.

A major life activity also includes 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.[4]

The ADAAA also provides examples of conditions likely to qualify as “substantially limiting” of a major life activity; this non-exhaustive list includes mental and physical, as well as visible and nonvisible conditions:

  • deafness
  • blindness
  • intellectual disability
  • partially or completely missing limbs
  • autism
  • cancer
  • cerebral palsy
  • diabetes
  • epilepsy
  • HIV infection
  • multiple sclerosis
  • muscular dystrophy
  • major depressive disorder
  • bipolar disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • mobility impairments requiring use of a wheelchair[5]

The ADA in Practice

The ADA is often referred to as a “thinking person’s law”. Like all other civil rights legislation, the ADA requires the application of independent judgment that can be highly specific to individual circumstances. It is for this reason in particular that employers often seek guidance from EARN, the Job Accommodation Network and Regional ADA Centers in making ADA-related determinations in employment situations.

For example, although the ADA cites the reproductive system as a physiological function that could be covered under the ADA if a disorder or other condition is present, pregnancy itself is not a disability. However, an employee who requires leave away from work on a regular basis to receive treatments for infertility might be considered disabled under the law, and entitled to request accommodation.

There are endless variations in individual circumstances which could require the application of sound judgment based on a solid understanding of Title I of the ADA as well as other regulations that may have implications or interactions, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Some of the more common complex circumstances involve medical conditions that also rise to the level of disability, where intermittent or extended leave may be required as a reasonable accommodation.

Disabilities are as diverse as the individuals who have them. As you think about disability, I encourage you to move beyond the shorthand of wheelchairs, to think broadly about what constitutes disability both legally and functionally and to translate that understanding to your workplace.


[1] World Health Organization. (2011). World Report on Disability.

[2] Adapted from: World Health Organization. (2011). World Report on Disability.

[3] ADA Amendments Act of 2008. PL 110-325 (S 3406).

[4] Adapted from: ADA Amendments Act of 2008. PL 110-325 (S 3406).


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