Do I have a Disability?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.  The Act opened up opportunities for millions of Americans to access opportunities and request accommodations to be able to perform work they are otherwise qualified to do.

Over the decades, more and more conditions have been classified as disabilities, and both workers and employers are sometimes confused as to what constitutes a disability under the law.  Is a worker entitled to accommodations (allowed to start her shift later in the morning, for example) if her debilitating headaches keep her up all night and make it hard to get up in the morning? If a worker has a condition that requires him to eat small, frequent meals, does he get to violate the company policy about eating at his desk?  These and other complicated issues can cause conflict if you don’t understand the law.  Here are some common sense guidelines for determining if a condition is protected under the ADA.

A person has a disability under the ADA if the person has an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The following questions may help determine whether an employee has a disability:

  • Does the employee have a physical or mental impairment? 
  • Is the impairment long-term or permanent? (a condition does not have to be permanent to be protected; if you have a broken arm in a cast, you can request accommodations until you can perform normal duties again.)
  • Does the impairment affect a major life activity?

Major life activities have been defined by the ADA.  They include physical activities such as standing, reaching, performing manual tasks, sitting, lifting, hearing, seeing, and speaking.  They also include cognitive abilities such as learning, sleeping, concentrating and interacting with people. 

If you are having trouble performing a job function because of impairment, you and your supervisor can work out an accommodation together.  The good news for your employer is that most accommodations don’t cost much; it might be as simple as a device to amplify sound on your phone headset, or simply being allowed to work fewer hours or take more frequent breaks. You should be prepared to state in what material way the accommodation will help you perform your job better.

Requests for reasonable accommodation do not have to be in writing; you can request accommodations in a face-to-face conversation or by email. Your employer may choose to write a memo or letter confirming your request or may ask you to fill out a form or submit the request in written form, but he/ she cannot ignore your initial request. You may want to put your request in writing even if your employer doesn’t require it. Sometimes it’s useful to have a paper trail in case there is a dispute about whether or when you requested accommodation.

Remember that your employer will not know what you need to perform your job unless you tell him.  The ADA provides for “reasonable accommodations” as long as they do not cause “undue hardship,”, so do some homework on options that might be helpful.  You may not get exactly what you requested, but may get a similar (or more cost effective)version of what you asked for, as decided by the employer.

For additional information on the types of accommodations you could ask for, see:

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