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Do short-term illnesses qualify as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Although Congress has recently clarified that the term "disability" should be interpreted broadly, to offer protection to as many people as possible, it does not cover all conditions, no matter how temporary or short term.
The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Major life activities include activities that are important to daily life, such as walking, seeing, breathing, speaking, learning, and caring for oneself. They also include major bodily functions, such as cell growth and the proper working of the body's reproductive, endocrine, neurological, and other systems.
An impairment may substantially limit someone's ability to perform major life activities even if the person can still engage in those activities. Courts must look at the condition, manner, and duration of the person's ability to perform the activity as compared to the general population. For example, if a person can perform an activity only with great difficulty or significant pain, or only for a brief period of time, that could constitute a substantial limitation.
Whether a particular short-term impairment counts as a disability under the ADA depends on whether it substantially limits the person's ability to perform major life activities. For example, a back injury that prevents someone from lifting more than ten pounds for several months might constitute a protected disability, even if the person fully heals from the injury. Similarly, someone who has a stroke may be unable to perform a number of major life activities for a couple of months, but may eventually recover fully and return to normal activity. This condition would likely also be covered by the ADA.
However, a short-term illness that doesn't affect the person's ability to perform major life activities would not be a covered disability. For example, even though the flu can feel quite debilitating for a few days, that would not qualify as a disability under the ADA.
By Lisa Guerin, J.D.
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