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Who Is Protected by the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the civil rights of people with disabilities, but how can we know whether someone has a disability, for the purposes of applying the law? The ADA answers that question by saying:

The term “disability” means, with respect to an individual

(1) A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such an individual;

(2) a record of such an impairment; or

(3) being regarded as having such an impairment.[1]

Only one of the three descriptions must be true for a person with a disability to be protected from discrimination by the ADA.

A Three-Prong Definition

The ADA’s definition of disability is commonly referred to as a three-prong definition, because it lists three ways in which a person could have a disability. But what does each prong mean today? To find out, it’s not enough to just read the ADA. This is because the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) and subsequent regulations from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) help us to understand the definition.

First Prong

The first prong talks about a disability that exists now. This disability could be physical or mental. Examples of physical impairments include:

Mental impairments include intellectual disabilities, emotional or psychiatric conditions, and specific learning disabilities. Examples include dyslexia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Substantially limits is meant to be applied broadly and without extensive analysis. It involves the nature and severity of the impairment, how long it is expected to last, and the overall impact of the impairment in the long term. (However, the EEOC has published a nine-part list that details what substantially limits means. To read the entire text of the EEOC’s rules about substantially limits, see 29 CFR Section 1630.2, Definitions. In that document, look for topic (j). This list is part of the much longer Regulations to Implement the Equal Employment Provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as Amended.)

What about a major life activity? A major life activity is one that is important to daily life and that most people can do easily or with only a small amount of difficulty. Examples include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, eating, walking, thinking, communicating, and working. The ADAAA clarified that major life activities also includes bodily functions, like the workings of various organs, the flow of blood, the digestive system, the immune system, and so forth. (The EEOC’s Regulations to Implement the Equal Employment Provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as Amended offers a specific list of major life activities in Section 1630.2, in topic (i).)

See also Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).

Second Prong

The second prong is about a disability that does not affect a person currently. For example, a person may have had cancer that is now in remission. Another example is a history of psychiatric disability. A record of a disability could also be false, such as a person who was mistakenly classified as having a learning disability.

Third Prong

The third prong is about situations that do not meet either of the first two definitions, but where disability-related discrimination is still taking place. For example, imagine a person who has a large scar on their face. This scar in no way limits their abilities, but it is considered a disability if it causes discrimination. For example, if an employer doesn’t hire them because of the scar. (When it comes to employment and the ADA, a person must be qualified for the position they hold, or wish to hold, in order for Title I to apply.)

Another example is if someone is discriminated against based on an untrue rumor about them being disabled. For instance, there could be a rumor about someone’s mental health or about whether they have a disease, such as an HIV infection or cancer.

The Association Provision

The ADA also prevents discrimination against people because of their relationship to a person with a disability.

For example, in employment, the Association Provision of the ADA protects "applicants and employees from discrimination based on their relationship or association with an individual with a disability, whether or not the applicant or employee has a disability."[2] The relationship does not have to be a family relationship. It can also be a friendship or any sort of association. The concern here is the motivation of the employer. In essence, employers may not act based on unfounded assumptions around things like caregiving responsibilities, insurance costs, or perceived reputation.

The Association Provision goes beyond employment. It also applies to people accessing services, products, or activities of businesses and state or local government agencies.

(To take a deep dive into the Association Provision as it relates to employment and read lots of helpful examples, see the EEOC’s document, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Questions and Answers About the Association Provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act.)

Wrapping Up

The focus of the ADA is on preventing discrimination against people with disabilities, and the definition of disability covers a lot of ground. The ADA also protects individuals from discrimination based on their association with people with disabilities.


[1] Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, including changes made by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, 42 U.S.C Section 12102 (1990).

[2] US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Questions & answers: Association provision of the ADA.


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