Disability 101: Definition of disability
July 8, 2008
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a piece of civil rights legislation designed to protect the rights of people with disabilities. It was passed into law in 1991 and guarantees equal rights for people with disabilities in the areas of employment, government services, places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, transportation, and communications.
Let’s utilize the ADA to continue our discussion regarding who is considered to have a disability. The ADA defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Major life activities under this law include breathing, hearing, learning, lifting, manual tasks, reading, seeing, self-care, sitting, speaking, standing, walking and working.
The ADA also protects people who have “a record of such an impairment,” such as a cancer survivor who previously qualified under this definition and then went into remission. In addition, it protects those who are “regarded as having such an impairment,” such as a person with facial scarring from a burn.
The ADA goes into additional detail regarding this definition but for our purposes we will stop here. Bear in mind that the definition must always be applied on an individualized, case-by-case basis.
However, let’s look at what the ADA definition of disability does not include. It does not include a list of diagnoses. A person with an impairment is not required to have received a particular diagnosis. Instead, the measure of their disability is determined from a functional assessment. It is merely a process of determining whether a major life activity is substantially limited.
Why did the creators of the ADA specifically exclude a list of diagnoses from their definition of disability? First of all, it would be impossible to create an all-inclusive list. Ten years from now, new diagnoses will exist that don’t exist today. Remember when AIDS was not in our vocabulary? New diseases are discovered and diagnosed continually. It would be impossible to keep a legislative list of diagnoses continually updated to provide protection for those with disabilities.
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In addition, the same diagnosis can mean differing levels of functioning for different people. One person may have a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and be totally incapacitated. Another person with the same diagnosis of multiple sclerosis will have no functional limit on any of their major life activities and is, thus, not considered to have a disability.
As discussed in my previous column, many people have a functional limitation on their major life activities and don’t have a diagnosis. They live in limbo land. Very frequently doctors don’t know the cause of a disabling condition and cannot give a diagnosis. However, that person is still considered to have a disability and is protected under the ADA.
I have been astounded when I’ve participated in online chat and message boards such as MS World to discover just how many people with disabling symptoms don’t have a diagnosis. There is a significant number of people out there who remain frustrated and distressed because their disabling symptoms have not received a socially acceptable label of a diagnosis.
Our society, unfortunately, gets way too hung up on the label that a diagnosis provides. Then, if an individual is in limbo land and is without a diagnosis, significant discrimination often occurs. Others think they’re “faking it” if a diagnosis is not forthcoming.
I encourage you to take your lead from the ADA and forget about diagnoses. Instead, consider whether the individual has a substantial, functional limitation on a major life activity. If they do, they are considered to have a disability and are protected under the ADA.
We’ll continue to delve further into other aspects of the ADA in my upcoming columns.
Frisco resident Sandy Lahmann is a disability consultant with Wheels on the Summit. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org .