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What Qualifies As A Disability According To The ADA?

by | Sep 30, 2022 | Disability Discrimination, Employment Discrimination, Employment Law, Federal Law Update |

How do I show disability discrimination by my job against me under the ADA?

Disability Discrimination Lawyer Answer: The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits employers from “discriminat[ing] against a qualified individual on the basis of disability” in employment. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). To establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination under the ADA, an employee must present sufficient evidence that: (1) the employee has a disability; (2) the employee is a qualified individual; and (3) the employer unlawfully discriminated against him because of the disability. (Best Law Read: What Does Prima Facie Mean?; ADA: Who is A Qualified Individual?; ADA: What Is A Central Job Function?). The ADA’s use of the phrase “discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability” has been defined to include making reasonable accommodations under certain circumstances. See 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A); Holly v. Clairson Indus., L.L.C., 492 F.3d 1247, 1262 (11th Cir. 2007). (Best Law Read: No, Employers Are Not Required To Accommodate All Disabilities; Can I Pick The ADA Accommodation I Want?).

What is considered a disability under the ADA?

Best ADA In The Workplace Attorney Answer: “[N]ot every impairment will constitute a disability” for purposes of protection under the ADA. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ii). The ADA provides that the concept of “disability” be “construed in favor of broad coverage.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(4)(A). Specifically, the ADA defines “disability” to be “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A). A physical or mental impairment is defined by the ADA to mean either:

(1) Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine; or

(2) Any mental or psychological disorder, such as an intellectual disability (formerly termed “mental retardation”), organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.

29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h). Once an impairment is identified, the next step is to show that such impairment rises to the level of a disability by establishing that “it substantially limits the ability of an individual to perform a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population.” 42 U.S.C. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ii). The ADA specifically requires courts to interpret the phrase “‘substantially limits’ … broadly in favor of expansive coverage.” 42 U.S.C. § 1630.2(j)(1)(i)–(iii); see also 42 U.S.C. § 12102(4)(B).

What are major life activities under the ADA?

Work Disability Lawyer Answer: Under the ADA, major life activities include, but are not limited to, “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. § 12102(2)(A); see also 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(i)(1)(i). Additionally, “major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(B); see also 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(i)(1)(ii).

What evidence do I need to prove a disability under the ADA?

Top Disability Work Accommodation Attorney Answer: The determination of whether an impairment is substantially limits a major life activity “should not demand extensive analysis.” 42 U.S.C. § 1630.2(j)(1)(i)–(iii). Further, this determination “usually will not require scientific, medical, or statistical analysis.” 42 U.S.C. § 1630.2(j)(1)(v). However, sufficient evidence of disability must demonstrate the timing, frequency, and duration of the employee’s impairments for the claim to survive. To that end, conclusory allegations by an employee or his doctors about the nature of limitations will not be sufficient to maintain the claim.

This brings us to out focus case of the day, Sugg v. City of Sunrise, No. 20-13884, 2022 WL 4296992, at *8 (11th Cir. Sept. 19, 2022). In that case, the employee, Jimmy Sugg was employed by the City of Sunrise as its Chief Electrical Inspector. After Sugg suffered a heart attack, which resulted in four days in the hospital and two weeks being on leave to recover. As part of his disability discrimination lawsuit, Sugg filed two declarations from his doctors with the Court. First, Dr. Tallet, a cardiologist, attested only that Sugg “would have issues” with several major life activities but stopped short of asserting that Sugg’s heart attack caused ‘substantial limitations’ to those activities. Dr. Shawn said Sugg would have “substantial limitations,” but the declaration failed to explain how or to what degree Sugg would be substantially limited. The second declaration was from Dr. Shawn, Sugg’s primary care physician, who merely stated Sugg “would have issues” with several major life activities with no further detail.

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida held that these two conclusory declarations provided were insufficient to establish a disability. The Eleventh District Court of Appeals agreed – and so do I. Sugg’s lawyer should not have let the doctor’s get away with such de minimis declarations – and if the doctors would not provide more detail, the lawyer should have deposed the doctors and got them to explain.

Thankfully for Sugg, that was not the end of this issue. While the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida refused to consider Sugg’s own declaration and deposition testimony, the Eleventh District said not so fast and reversed the district court on this point:

As the regulations accompanying the ADA do not require medical evidence to establish disability, we conclude that a plaintiff’s own testimony is sufficient where it would allow a jury to reasonably determine that the plaintiff was disabled under the ADA. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(v); … Mancini v. City of Providence, 909 F.3d 32, 43–44 (1st Cir. 2018) (“A plaintiff’s detailed description of his limitations, standing alone, often will be sufficient to overcome the ‘relatively low bar created by the substantially limits and summary-judgment standards.’ “ (quoting Williams v. Tarrant Cnty. Coll. Dist., 717 F. App’x 440, 448 (5th Cir. 2018))).

Id. at *8.

Applying this law, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that Sugg’s own testimony was sufficiently detailed to establish the existence of a disability under the ADA:

Sugg testified, and the City acknowledged, that Sugg was diagnosed with heart disease at the emergency room following his heart attack. Heart disease such as Sugg’s satisfies the low threshold of impairment. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h)(1); Hilburn, 181 F.3d at 1227 (“There is no question that heart disease constitutes a physical impairment under the ADA.”).

Sugg also testified about how his heart disease and corresponding heart attack limited his daily activities. Sugg testified that his ability to lift things—a “major life activity,” as defined by the ADA—was apparently so limited that he could not lift “anything” and that he could not move things like pieces of drywall. Among other limitations, he testified that he could only “go like 15 minute spurts” before having to stop to catch his breath. Thus, Sugg specifically alleged enough nonconclusory information that a jury could reasonably find that his heart disease has substantially limited the major life activities of (at least) lifting and walking.

Id. at *9.

The takeaway from today’s case: Details matter. Employment laws, including specifically the ADA, are extremely complex. Missing a key requirement or not stating a fact with the required level of detail can doom your case. Don’t leave your case to chance. (Best Law Read: Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical).

Can I sue for disability discrimination?

Best Ohio Employment Lawyer Answer: The last thing you need to deal with while addressing health and disability issues is for your employer to make your job more difficult, or even worse wrongfully fire you. If you are call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. The best option is not to wait. Call our lawyers in Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati, Youngstown, Raleigh, and Detroit to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its attorneys are experienced and dedicated to protecting disabled employees’ rights under ADA and Ohio employment law.


This disability discrimination and employment law website is an advertisement. The ADA materials available at the top of this page and on this employment law website are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. If you are still asking, “how do ask my employer for an accommodation for my disability in order to do my job?”, “am I considered disabled under the ADA?”, “what should I do if my supervisor fired me after he learned that I have cancer” or “can I lose my job if I ask HR for a disability accommodation to help me at work”, it would be best for you to contact an Ohio attorney to obtain advice with respect to disability discrimination questions or any particular employment law issue. Use and access to this employment law website or any of the links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship. The legal opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual lawyer and may not reflect the opinions of The Spitz Law Firm, attorney, Brian Spitz or any individual attorney.

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