Defining Disability

Disability and Diversity, purple letters on what background

It’s critical that employers understand the diversity and prevalence of disability, as well as what it means—practically and legally—in 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 transportation systems).

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 US.

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.

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A major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, 

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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 and cancer.

The ADA is often referred to as a “thinking person’s 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.

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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 request accommodation.

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

Cornell University

Read more articles from the Jennifer Esposito Issue.

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