What is a “Disability” Within the Meaning of the Anti-Discrimination Laws?

The Americans with Disabilities Act, New York State Human Rights Law, and New York City Human Rights Law all prohibit discrimination on the basis of a “disability”.

The term “disability” is defined by the statutes in a specific way; thus a medical condition must come under the statutory definition of “disability” in order for a disability discrimination claim to succeed.


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C.A. § 12101 et seq., defines a “disability” as:

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

(B) a record of such an impairment; or

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

[42 U.S.C.A. § 12102(1)]

The statute goes on to define the term “major life activities” as including “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.” [42 U.S.C.A. § 12102(2)(A)]

It also states, inter alia, that:

(A) The definition of disability in this chapter shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals under this chapter, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter.

(B) The term “substantially limits” shall be interpreted consistently with the findings and purposes of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.

(C) An impairment that substantially limits one major life activity need not limit other major life activities in order to be considered a disability.

(D) An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.

(E)(i) The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity shall be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures[.] …

The NYC Human Rights Law

The NYC Human Rights Law is broader than the ADA, in terms of, among other things, how it defines the term “disability.”

Section 8-102(16) of the New York City Human Rights Law defines a “disability” as follows:

(a) The term “disability” means any physical, medical, mental or psychological impairment, or a history or record of such impairment.

(b) The term “physical, medical, mental, or psychological impairment” means: (1) An impairment of any system of the body; including, but not limited to: the neurological system; the musculoskeletal system; the special sense organs and respiratory organs, including, but not limited to, speech organs; the cardiovascular system; the reproductive system; the digestive and genito-urinary systems; the hemic and lymphatic systems; the immunological systems; the skin; and the endocrine system; or (2) A mental or psychological impairment.

(c) In the case of alcoholism, drug addiction or other substance abuse, the term “disability” shall only apply to a person who (1) is recovering or has recovered and (2) currently is free of such abuse, and shall not include an individual who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs, when the covered entity acts on the basis of such use.

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