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ADA Policy Brief Series #6: Defining Disability in a Civil Rights Context

Thursday, February 13, 2003
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February 13, 2003


This policy brief looks at the definition of disability in a civil rights context and the Court’s focus on extent of limitations, as opposed to fair treatment and equal opportunity.

In 1990, when it enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Congress adopted a definition of the term “disability” that had been used under Title V of the Rehabilitation Act since the 1970s. The definition included individuals with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity, individuals with a history of such an impairment, and people who are regarded by others or perceived as having such an impairment. In the legislative history of the ADA,

Section (I) of this paper provides an overview of the origins of the statutory language found in the ADA definition of disability. Section (II) considers the dramatically narrowed scope of the ADA’s coverage resulting from a series of hostile federal court decisions. These rulings have construed the ADA’s definition of disability to exclude individuals with a vast array of significant physical and mental conditions from any protections under the ADA. This outcome is devastating, unjust, untenable, and contrary to the original intent of the sponsors of the ADA. Section (III) looks to the experiences of several states that have adopted independent and broader definitions of “disability” for the purposes of antidiscrimination statutes. Similarly, Section (IV) examines the models and definitions of “disability” used beyond the borders of the United States, by other countries and by the World Health Organization. Section (V) outlines a broader approach to the statutory framework.

An official website of the National Council on Disability