US Department of Education NIDRR Technical Assistance Program

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Chapter 2: Individuals With Disabilities

III-2.4000 Substantial limitation of a major life activity.

To constitute a "disability," a condition must substantially limit a major life activity. Major life activities include such activities as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.

When does an impairment "substantially limit" a major life activity? There is no absolute standard for determining when an impairment is a substantial limitation. Some impairments obviously or by their nature substantially limit the ability of an individual to engage in a major life activity.

ILLUSTRATION 1: A person who is deaf is substantially limited in the major life activity of hearing. A person with a minor hearing impairment, on the other hand, may not be substantially limited.

ILLUSTRATION 2: A person with traumatic brain injury may be substantially limited in the major life activities of caring for one's self, learning, and working because of memory deficit, confusion, contextual difficulties, and inability to reason appropriately.

An impairment substantially interferes with the accomplishment of a major life activity when the individual's important life activities are restricted as to the conditions, manner, or duration under which they can be performed in comparison to most people.

ILLUSTRATION 1: A person with a minor vision impairment, such as 20/40 vision, does not have a substantial impairment of the major life activity of seeing.

ILLUSTRATION 2: A person who can walk for 10 miles continuously is not substantially limited in walking merely because, on the eleventh mile, he or she begins to experience pain, because most people would not be able to walk eleven miles without experiencing some discomfort.

Are "temporary" mental or physical impairments covered by title III? Yes, if the impairment substantially limits a major life activity. The issue of whether a temporary impairment is significant enough to be a disability must be resolved on a case- by-case basis, taking into consideration both the duration (or expected duration) of the impairment and the extent to which it actually limits a major life activity of the affected individual.

ILLUSTRATION: During a house fire, M received burns affecting his hands and arms. While it is expected that, with treatment, M will eventually recover full use of his hands, in the meantime he is substantially limited in performing basic tasks required to care for himself such as eating and dressing. Because M's burns are expected to substantially limit a major life activity (caring for one's self) for a significant period of time, M would be considered to have a disability covered by title III.

If a person's impairment is greatly lessened or eliminated through the use of aids or devices, would the person still be considered an individual with a disability? Whether a person has a disability is determined without regard to the availability of mitigating measures, such as reasonable modifications, auxiliary aids and services, services or devices of a personal nature, or medication. For example, a person with severe hearing loss is substantially limited in the major life activity of hearing, even though the loss may be improved through the use of a hearing aid. Likewise, persons with impairments, such as epilepsy or diabetes, that, if untreated, would substantially limit a major life activity, are still individuals with disabilities under the ADA, even if the debilitating consequences of the impairment are controlled by medication.