What Does it Mean to be Disabled Under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

What Does it Mean to be Disabled Under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

New York disability attorneys at Leeds Brown have handled disability discrimination claims and lawsuits in New York City and nationwide. Disabled individuals are entitled to a safe and discrimination-free workplace yet many of our most enthusiastic workers find themselves un-hire-able or terminated because of discrimination. In New York City in 2007, only 30 percent of the disabled population between the ages of 18 and 64 was employed.

The ADA and other laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants with disabilities. When an employee has a disability, the employer is required to make reasonable accommodations so the employee may perform his or her job duties. The employer must make reasonable accommodations, unless doing so would be an undue hardship.

It sounds simple but in reality there is much litigation between employers and employees over what is reasonable and what constitutes a disability under the laws.

Defining Disability in New York ADA Cases

When you tell your employer that you are disabled, what does this mean? Determining what a disability is under the ADA is the first step in any ADA case. The ADA itself defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.”

Often, a disability is obvious and an employee has it well documented. But this is not always the case.

The ADA defines impairment fairly broadly, and NY law defines it even more so. It may include a physical, mental or psychological disorder. The following may be considered impairments:

  • Disfigurement
  • Anatomical loss affecting senses, nervous system, respiratory system, reproductive system, cardiovascular system, lymphatic system, digestive system and more
  • Mental retardation
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental illness
  • Organic brain syndrome

What is a Major Life Activity?

Once a person is deemed disabled under the ADA, you must determine if a major life activity is affected by that impairment. There is no comprehensive guide that tells us exactly what constitutes a major life activity. The original ADA passed in 1990 did not lend guidance to this question at all. However, in 2008, the ADA was amended to include specific functions that qualified as major life activities. The following activities are usually considered to be major life activities under the ADA

  • eating
  • reading
  • thinking
  • communicating
  • lifting
  • reaching
  • sleeping
  • interacting with others
  • sitting
  • standing
  • bending
  • concentrating
  • operation of major bodily functions including:
    • digestive functions
    • respiratory functions
    • circulatory functions
    • endocrine functions
    • the immune system
    • normal cell growth
    • reproductive functions
    • bowel functions
    • urinary functions
    • neurological functions
    • brain functions

Employee must Request Reasonable Accommodations

A disabled employee must make a request for a reasonable accommodation. It is the employee’s responsibility to seek the accommodation. According to EEOC enforcement guidelines, the request does not have to be in writing. The request must let the employer know that the worker needs an adjustment and that the need is linked to a medical reason or condition.

For example, an employee may tell his supervisor that he is having trouble getting to work on time because of medical treatments he needs in the morning. Or, a new worker may tell her manager that her wheelchair does not fit under her desk. These are both, according to the EEOC, requests for reasonable accommodations. They do not mention the ADA or the words “reasonable accommodation” and they don’t have to.

Alternatively, if an employer tells his boss that he needs a new chair because his is uncomfortable, the failure to convey that the request is connected to a medical condition deems it not a valid request.

Once a request is made, there is supposed to be informal interaction between the employer and the employee in an attempt to resolve the situation. Of course, the nature of the interaction will vary due to the specific circumstances in play. If there are questions about the disability itself, an employer may seek medical documentation of the condition. If the employer can provide the accommodation without undue hardship, the matter may go no further.

Some employers may claim that the disability is not covered under law or that the accommodation would cause undue hardship. Under these circumstances you may wish to contact an attorney for assistance.

Contact New York City Disability Discrimination Attorneys at Leeds Brown

If you have a disability and worry about losing your job or have experienced any workplace discrimination, it may help to speak with an attorney. At Leeds Brown we have lawyers who have been handling disability cases under the ADA and New York law for over 20 years. When it comes to protecting workers, we understand the complex legal landscape and can help guide you through the process. We can help you request and secure your reasonable accommodation and seek compensation if your employer fails to cooperate.

Knowing what your rights are is the first step and best way to ensure that you are granted the accommodation you deserve. Contact the New York City disability attorneys at Leeds Brown today at 1-800-585-4658.


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Shortly after beginning medical school, I experienced some academic difficulties. After seeing my physicians, I was diagnosed with ADHD. After I started receiving specific treatment for ADHD, I requested the school to accommodate me for the disability as recommended by my physician. One of the requests made was for extended time to take my exams. The extension of time was granted...

~Kenneth Broodo, Esq.

Partner at Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP
I hired Lenard Leeds, Esq. to assist me with my wrongful termination. I was let go of my position because of my age. I was not only told to take a decrease in pay but also required to work fewer hours to do the same job. Additionally, they kept asking me “When are you going to retire?” I visited the...


I want to thank you again for assisting me in overseeing my issues with my employer. This is the second time I have used Lenard Leeds, Esq. to fight for me. This time I was a National Sales Manager of a drug company, where acts of discrimination based on my age, national origin and retaliation took place. Mr. Leeds and...

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