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What is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Last year, the U.S. celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act that was passed under President Bush in the early 1990s. Despite the fact that the law was hailed by many countries for providing some of the most robust protections for people with disabilities at the time, many Americans still do not understand exactly how disability is defined under the law. Ignorance of the ADA creates issues with compliance as well as with the ability of the disabled to understand how to request accommodations and what methods of resolution are open to them in the event of an access conflict.

Definition of disability

The ADA defines disability very clearly and carefully. According to, a person who has a disability is "a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment."

To understand how the legislation applies to the real world, it is important to note a few things about the ADA and about the definition of "disabled."

Here are some points to keep in mind:

1. The ADA protects not only the people with disabilities themselves but those individuals who are closely associated with them, such as family members and paid caretaking staff. This ensures that accommodations extend to the support personnel necessary for the person with a protected disability.

2. Various sections in the legislation delineate specific protections and methods for resolving disputes and registering complaints about noncompliance. None contain a list of disabilities.

3. Since there is no list of disabilities and the qualifying criteria are impairment-based, it is possible for two people with the same condition to have a different disability status, depending on how their disability influences their lives.

4. There is only one medically treatable condition that is specifically excluded from accommodation and protection under the act regardless of the degree of impairment it causes: gender dysphoria, previously known as "Gender Identity Disorder." The ADA has excluded it twice, and subsequent efforts to modify the law have so far been unsuccessful.

Other disability laws and the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act offers a robust system of protections to help those living with various impairments access the same public accommodations and opportunities in society as their fellow citizens. It is only one law in a large body of legislation that includes the Federal Civil Rights Act, the Telecommunications Act and others.

Individuals who believe they have suffered discrimination as a result of their disability are encouraged to seek the advice of a knowledgeable attorney.

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