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Disability Definitions In Different Laws

The colloquial meaning of the word “disabled” is fairly clear. The word refers to someone who, due to some sort of mental, physical or developmental abnormality, cannot perform certain tasks normally expected of someone of the person’s age and cognitive ability. However, in a legal context, disability takes on not just one, but many different meanings depending on which law you are using to investigate the issue. It can be confusing or even damaging if you use the wrong definition in a lawsuit or request. In this article, we cover disability definitions according to various laws.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

Perhaps the most common disability definition seen in today’s law is that specified in the Americans With Disabilities Act. Under the ADA, a disabled person is someone who has an “impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” While most of the time, disability is viewed as a medical concept, the ADA defines it as a legal one. As such, its definition differs from a standard medical practitioner’s definition. This can cause issues between employees and employers, especially when a disability is invisible—for example, mental illness or autism spectrum disorder.

Oftentimes, the bone of contention in a dispute with an employer is the definition of the words “substantially limits.” There is jurisprudence on the matter, but sometimes an employer will make up their mind that an employee is malingering or exaggerating their disability to get out of work and may either punish or discriminate against them accordingly. If you believe this is happening to you, you may want to contact either the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (SCHAC) or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The Social Security Act (SSA)

By comparison, the definition of disability under the Social Security Act, specifies that disability—or more specifically, the state of being disabled—is “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA)” due to any “medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s).” That impairment must either be ultimately terminal or have lasted or is expected to last for more than 12 months. The differences are quite noticeable, most obviously that the SSA definition refers to “gainful activity,” meaning specifically activities that are related to paid employment.

Generally, an employer has somewhat less leeway under this definition. If an employee cannot perform any “substantial” part of their job due to impairment, it will likely be held to constitute a disability under the SSA. While the SSA definition comes up more often in cases of age discrimination than in issues involving disability discrimination, it does come up in cases where an employee may be able to draw SSDI due to an injury either suffered at work or that fundamentally affects their work. Familiarizing yourself with the SSA can be a great help if you are in this situation.

Seek Knowledgeable Legal Help

Disability does not preclude a person from holding down a job. But an uninformed or negligent employer can attempt to use your condition against you. An experienced employment discrimination lawyer can be of assistance. Attorney A. Christopher Potts and his Charleston employment law discrimination firm are happy to sit down with you and discuss your situation. Contact our office today to set up an initial appointment.

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