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ADAAA Rules Expand Definition of Working As Major Life Activity

    Client Alerts
  • October 09, 2009

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a protected disabled person must suffer from a significant impairment of a major life activity.  From the ADA's enactment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognized that in some cases, working is considered a major life activity.  However, based on EEOC administrative opinions and federal court decisions, interference with work was never viewed as the preferred way to demonstrate disabled status under the ADA.  The EEOC took the position that the employee's inability to perform his or her specific job was not enough.  The plaintiff had to demonstrate that their condition prevented them from performing a broad class of jobs.

In its new proposed ADA Amendments Act regulations, the EEOC backs away from this position, instead substituting a test more likely to conclude that a plaintiff's condition impairs their ability to work.  Under the new rules, an impairment interferes with the major life activity of working if it substantially limits the individual's ability to perform the type of work at issue.  The EEOC defines type of work as the job the individual has been performing, or jobs with similar qualifications and requirements.

The individual would be disabled under the ADA if the impairment significantly interferes with these job requirements, even if it does not interfere with the general population's performance of similar tasks in daily life.  The EEOC states that the individual's ability to obtain employment elsewhere is not dispositive of whether the employee is substantially limited in working.

This definition comes close to stating that if the individual cannot perform his or her current job due to a disability, they are disabled under the ADA, even where the impairment has no substantial effect on any other aspect of their life.  For many if not most jobs, the skills required by the employee will be specialized enough that the relevant type of work will be restricted to a very narrow range of jobs.

When read in concert with other provisions of the new ADAAA rules, employers should conclude that the threshold qualifications for disability under the ADA have been lowered to the point where any plausible physical or mental impairment will be considered a disabling condition.