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New Amendments Expand the Federal Definition of Disability


Disability law has always been one of the most contentious areas of law.  Over the years, countless disability claims have been rejected because the applicant did not fit into federal definitions of “disability” for insurance or social security purposes.  However, this may all change in the very near future, as federal authorities have recently expanded the definition of disability.

Amendments have been finalized for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is the main piece of federal disability legislation.  Previously, persons filing for benefits under the ADA encountered many legal hurdles when processing their claims.  This is because the legal definition of “disability” was somewhat restrictive, both according to the statute itself as well as in the way that courts interpreted it.

The newly approved (and clumsily titled) “Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act” (ADAAA) relaxes several requirements found in the federal definition of disability.  Some of the changes include:

  • “Substantially limiting”: Previously, a person claiming disability had to prove that the disability had a “substantially limiting” effect on a major life activity such as walking or sleeping.  Now, the impairment no longer has to significantly limit major life activities.  Business with 15 or more employees must comply with this provision.
  • “Major life activities”: If an analysis of the applicant’s “major life activities” does become necessary, the ADAAA makes it clear that the phrase also covers “major bodily functions”, such as cell growth, immune system functions, and neurological and endocrine functions.
  • Mitigating measures: “Mitigating measures”, such as the use of medication or devices such as hearing aids, may not be considered when determining whether a person is disabled.  The only exception here is eyeglasses and contact lenses.
  • Episodic impairments: Episodic impairments such as epilepsy are now considered disabilities, though they must be substantially limiting during active periods of the impairment.  This includes impairments in remission (including cancer).
  • “Regarded as disabled”: Under the old ADA, a non-diagnosed person could qualify for disability if they were “regarded as disabled” by another person.  Under this category, the new law shifts the focus from the nature of the impairment to how the person was treated.
  • Obvious impairments: Due to the difficulty of creating a complete list, the previous ADA did not include an exhaustive list of impairments that would qualify for disability.  The new Amendments do include specific examples of impairments that would easily be considered disabilities, including diabetes, epilepsy, HIV infection, and bipolar disorders.

Therefore the basic effect of the new Amendments is that it will potentially be much easier for a person to establish that they have a disability.  In effect the federal definition of “disability” has been expanded to remove the various hurdles that an applicant faced in the past.

Personally I believe that this is a great move, as America’s healthcare and disability coverage is notorious for lagging behind that of other developed nations.  The new disability rules may help bring the U.S. up to speed when it comes to providing persons with basic protection in instances where they need it the most.

On the other hand, there are a few caveats associated with the expanded disability definitions.  First of all, the new rules make it absolutely clear that not every single impairment will be considered a disability.  Conditions that are less debilitating or subject to debate will still have to undergo a thorough analysis.  The main purpose of the ADAAA was not to include every impairment in the definition of disability.  Rather, the main purpose was to make it easier to obtain protection for conditions that are clearly debilitating.

Secondly, there are already concerns that the new rules will increase the already rising number of disability claims that are being filed.  In all likelihood, they most probably will result in more claims filed.  Many fear that the spike in disability claims may drain federal funding and social security resources.  This may be a concern especially if unscrupulous persons attempt to abuse the system by filing for disability when they really shouldn’t be.  Also, in response to the number of claims, we may see more disability claims being initially approved, then subsequently denied for various reasons.

With regards to the increase in claims, I believe that this will be an inevitable effect of the new rules.  However, I also feel that this is one area where an increase in federal spending would be appropriate if it becomes necessary.  Disability coverage is important for maintaining the health and effectiveness of employees during times of recovery.  Focusing more attention on workers’ health can be a way to increase the overall effectiveness of America’s workforce.

We have yet to see how the new amendments to the ADA will play out in practical application.  In the meantime, concerned employees and employers can find out more at the website for the Federal register.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has also issued a very informative and helpful announcement.


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