What is a Disability?

The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment. A major life activity includes:

  • Walking
  • Seeing
  • Speaking
  • Hearing
  • Breathing
  • Learning
  • Working
  • Sleeping
  • Caring for one's self
  • Performing manual tasks

The ADA also covers bodily functions and systems including the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine and reproductive functions. 

A person's impairment can substantially limit a major life activity depends on the nature and severity of the impairment, the duration of the impairment, and the long-term impact (Americans with Disabilities Act, Public Law 101-336, 1990 and ADA amendments of 2008). 

Examples of disabilities include but are not limited to:

  • Mobility impairment
  • Blindness, visual impairment
  • Deaf, hearing-impaired
  • Psychological disorders
  • Learning disabilities
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Cosmetic disfigurements
  • Cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Chronic disorders - disorders of bodily functions

What is a "Record of Impairment?

An individual has a "record" of having an impairment when the individual has a history of a disability, whether or not s/he is currently substantially limited in a major life activity. Such disabilities may include a history of heart disease, cancer, or mental illness. 

What is "Regarded as Disabled?"

An individual is "regarded" as having an impairment when s/he is perceived or treated as having an impairment, although no impairment exists. For example, an individual who speaks slowly may be regarded as having a mental impairment, although no impairment exists. 


The ADA protects individuals who have a known association or relationship with a person with a disability. For example, a public entity may not discriminate against the companion of a person with cerebral palsy. Or an employer cannot refuse to hire an applicant because he or she is dating someone with AIDS.

Alcoholics and Drug Addicts

Drug addiction and alcoholism are covered unless an individual is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs.