that employers understand the diversity and prevalence of disability,
as well as what it meanspractically and legallyin order
to ensure an inclusive workplace for all.
For many, the word disability conjures images of individuals
who use wheelchairs or who are blind or deaf. But according to a 2011
World Health Organization report, disability is a far more diverse
part of the human experience; it affects all of us at some point of
our lives, either directly or through a family member or close friend.
A functional definition of disability focuses on three areas:
Impairments with body function or alterations in body structure (e.g.
paralysis, blindness); difficulties executing activities (e.g., walking,
eating); and participation restrictions (e.g., lack of access to accessible
Disabilities can be visible or invisible, temporary or long term,
chronic or episodic. Environment can act as a facilitator or barrier
for individuals with disabilities. A person who uses a wheelchair,
for example, may find their disability more salient in a multistory
building without an elevator than in a building that is fully accessible.
While the above description is broader in scope, the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA) and Amendments Act (ADAAA) offer more specific,
legal guidelines that are critical to entities and employers in the
The ADAAA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment
that substantially limits one or more major life activities; a record
of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.
Key to this definition are such terms as physical or mental
impairment, meaning 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). Major
life activities that fall in this category 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, according
to the ADAAA. The law 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 such as an intellectual disability, autism
The ADA is often referred to as a thinking persons law.
Like all other civil rights legislation, it requires the application
of independent judgment that can be highly specific to individual
circumstances. For this reason, in particular, employers often seek
guidance from Employee Assistance and Resource Network, 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 not present, then pregnancy itself is not considered
to be a disability. However, an employee who requires a leave from
work on a regular basis to receive treatments for infertility might
be considered to have a disability under the law, and entitled to
There are endless variations in individual circumstances that 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. Some of the more common 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.
by Valerie Malzer
Valerie Malzer is a Research Specialist at Cornell University’s Yang-Tan Institute, with a focus on evaluation of disability and employment programs.
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