Essential Terms of Disability Discrimination Law Explained

Understanding the Most Important Terms of Disability Discrimination Law

Disability discrimination law is not the easiest subject to wrap one’s head around. The terms and rules can get complicated. Yet, understanding these terms is an essential aspect of filing a grievance complaint with your employer or even filing a formal charge of disability discrimination with the EEOC.

For instance, figuring out whether your disability is qualified for legal protection hinges on a thorough understanding of the phrase “substantially limiting” and other key terms. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the most important terms of disability discrimination law as well as the details that shape their meanings.

Disability Discrimination Law: Title VII and the ADA

Before delving into definitions and terms, let’s take a look at the main sources of law for the subject: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

In Title VII, discrimination in workplaces with 15 or more employees is prohibited in specific categories, disability included. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, the meaning of the term “disability” in Title VII is the same as the definition outlined in the ADA.

In the ADA, employers may not discriminate against workers with disabilities in any area of employment. The statute defines a “disability” as

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, or
  • A record of such impairment, or
  • Being regarded as having such an impairment.

States also enforce disability discrimination laws usually modeled after Title VII and the ADA. In California, disability discrimination is governed by a special statute called the Fair Housing and Employment Act (FEHA).

ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA)

After the ADAAA passed in 2008, the ADA saw a few updates. The Amendment expands the definition of disability and describes what types of disabilities are covered. It also includes a list of “major life activities” for specific information on the phrase. Even though it’s impossible to note every type of major life activity that applies under the statute, the list is a helpful guide for use of the term.


According to disability discrimination law, a disability is any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The passage of the ADAAA requires courts to construe this definition as broadly as possible.

An employee is also considered disabled if there is a record of a disability, meaning that he or she had a disability in the past or has been wrongly classified as disabled. This could occur in instances where an employee has a history of disability demonstrated in his or her medical records, but has now recovered. Disability discrimination law prevents the history of disability from becoming a determining factor in employment decisions. It also prevents discrimination against employees who have been mistakenly identified as disabled in the past.

Major Life Activity

An extremely important phrase in disability discrimination law, “major life activity” defines the parameters of all that qualifies as a disability. In addition to the ADAAA’s shortlist of major life activities, perhaps it is best to describe what does NOT qualify.  These are activities such as driving, grocery shopping, and caring for others.

The term “major life activity” does include caring for oneself and maintaining bodily functions including body systems function like the operation of one’s immune system. The term also includes performing manual operations like reading, hearing, speaking and seeing.

Substantially Limits

Also a major term in disability discrimination law, “substantially limits” helps define the way in which a qualifying disability operates. Under the law, a disability is substantially limiting when it has a significant or major effect on one or more major life activities, but it need not be severe or prevent the life activity. In fact the ADAAA admonishes courts to liberally construe this phrase and lowers the bar on the analysis needed to determine whether a major life activity is substantially limiting for purposes of the law.

Regarded As

Even if an employee does not currently have a disability or does not have a history of disability, he or she may still be able to make a disability discrimination claim if an employer thinks that the employee is disabled and treats him or her as such.

In such situations, an employee experiences discrimination based on the fact that the employer believes he or she is disabled due to an impairment the employee has or the employer believes she has. In these cases, the employee need not prove that the employer regarded him or her as substantially limited in a major life activity.

Reasonable Accommodations

Under both Title VII and the ADA and its amendments, an employer must provide reasonable accommodations for disabled employees that request them unless doing so would cause the business undue hardship. Examples include job restructuring, providing leave, modifying schedules or offering a part-time schedule, modifying workplace policies or reassignment.

It’s important to keep in mind that an employer is not obligated to provide accommodation that creates “undue hardship,” meaning significant difficulty or expense. According to the EEOC, a company must be able to show that the requested accommodation is more than just generally difficult to provide. Rather, it must show that it is highly detrimental according to an individual assessment of the circumstances at the time.

Disability Discrimination Charge

In order to formally move forward with a disability discrimination claim, an employee must first approach the EEOC or a state EEOC district office. These agencies conduct investigations into each discrimination claim and determine whether or not the EEOC or state agency will represent the employee in court. An employee has a specific amount of time in which to file a disability discrimination charge with the appropriate office, and must strictly observe these deadlines in order to keep the claim alive.

Once a disability discrimination charge has been filed, the agency office will either decide to move forward with the case or issue a Notice of Right to Sue letter to the employee. This notice allows the employee to take the matter to court using a personal attorney for representation. In 2015, the EEOC experienced a 6 percent increase in the number of disability discrimination charges filed and resolved just over 6,000 of those claims in favor of the disabled employee.

Manuela Varela

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Manuela Varela has been with Shegerian & Associates since August 2022. She is responsible for outreach and marketing on behalf of the firm and manages relationships between firms and referring attorneys. She is also responsible for developing business opportunities and affiliations. Manuela graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Economics and Political Science.