As I previously discussed, protection for disabled employees was vastly expanded on January 1, 2009, when the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), a law expanding the scope of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), went into effect. On March 25, 2011, the United States Equal Employment Commission (EEOC) established its final regulations clarifying the ADAAA. Courts generally must follow these regulations unless they are inconsistent with the ADAAA.
Below, I discuss some of the regulations regarding the scope of the ADAAA, and the terms "major life activity" and "substantially limited." Next week, I will discus additional regulations that explain when an employer can consider "mitigating measures" for disabilities, and how to prove that someone is covered by the ADA because he has a "record of" a disability or is "regarded as" having a disability.
The Scope of the ADAAA
The new regulations make it clear that the ADAAA is intended to broaden the definition of the term "disability" and to make it easier for employees to meet that definition. The ADA still covers individuals who have (1) an actual physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits" a "major life activity;" (2) a "record of" such an impairment, and (3) are "regarded as" having an impairment. However, the meanings of those terms have been broadened significantly.
What is a "Major Life Activity" Under the ADAAA
The regulations explain that the term "major life activity" includes caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working.
Some impairments almost always are considered disabilities. Examples include deafness, blindness, intellectual disability (formerly known as mental retardation), partially or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV infection, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.
What Does it Mean to "Substantially Limit" a Major Life Activity?
The regulations say the term "substantially limits" should be interpreted broadly and does not necessarily require an individual to be severely or significantly limited. Generally, the focus should be on whether the employer discriminated against the employee, not on whether the employee meets the definition of disabled.
They also say that, when determining whether the impairment is a disability, you can consider the condition, duration, and manner in which an individual can perform a major life activity. They further clarify that an impairment can be covered by the ADAAA even if it lasts less than six months, is episodic, or is in remission. For example, episodic impairments like epilepsy, hypertension, asthma, diabetes, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, and cancer in remission, all can be impairments under the ADAAA.