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Disability discrimination and reasonable accommodations

Employment disability discrimination: What does the law mean when it says the disability must substantially limit major life activities or bodily functions?

The law makes an important distinction between a disability that restricts a major life activity and a temporary impairment like a broken arm. An employee is covered by anti-discrimination laws if he or she is a qualified handicapped person who can do his/her job, either with or without a reasonable accommodation.

To be a qualified handicapped employee protected from disability discrimination, you must, as a threshold matter, show: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or bodily functions, as discussed in the bullet items below; or (2) a past history of such an impairment. Once you meet this criteria, you are entitled to seek a reasonable accommodation from your employer to help you do your job. [Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve written about how it is illegal for an employer to discriminate because it incorrectly believes an employee is handicapped. I’ve also written about the steps an employer must follow when a qualified disabled employee requests a reasonable accommodation. For the purposes of this blog article, I will focus on what criteria employees must first meet to show that they actually have or had a disability that interferes with a major life activity or bodily function.]

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the elements that demonstrate that someone is a qualified handicapped employee who is entitled to seek a reasonable accommodation under anti-discrimination laws:

  • The term “substantially limits” requires a certain degree of functional limitation, based on an individualized assessment. Not every impairment will constitute a disability.
  • An impairment does not need to severely restrict a major life activity to be considered substantially limiting.
  • The term “major life activity” is expansive.  It includes critical activities such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.
  • The term “major bodily functions” is also expansive. It includes digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.
  • There are some impairments that are consistently recognized as a disability, including epilepsy, diabetes, cancer, HIV infection, and bipolar disorder.
  • With one exception (ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses), the determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity is made without regard to the positive  effects of mitigating measures, like medication or hearing aids.
  • An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity or bodily function when active.
Pamela A. Smith
Law Office of Pamela A. Smith
233 Needham Street, Suite 540
Newton, MA 02464


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