EEOC Office of Legal Counsel staff members wrote the following informal discussion letter in response to an inquiry from a member of the public. This letter is intended to provide an informal discussion of the noted issue and does not constitute an official opinion of the Commission.
ADA: Definition of Disability
September 28, 2000
This is in response to your letter of August 10, 2000, inquiring whether irritable bowel syndrome is a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Title I of the ADA prohibits employment discrimination against a qualified individual with a disability. A person has a disability within the meaning of the ADA if s/he (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; (2) has a record of a substantially limiting impairment; or (3) is regarded by an employer as having a substantially limiting impairment. 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2). An "impairment" is a physical or mental or psychological disorder. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h). Major life activities include breathing, walking, learning, seeing, and hearing. An impairment is considered substantially limiting if it prevents an individual from performing a major life activity, or significantly restricts the individual's ability to perform the activity as compared with the average person in the general population.
Whether a particular medical condition constitutes a disability under the ADA must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Each individual's medical condition has to be assessed to determine if it rises to the level of being an ADA "disability." This is because an impairment may substantially limit a major life activity for one person but not for another.
Irritable bowel syndrome is an impairment as defined by the ADA. The issue is whether a particular person's irritable bowel syndrome substantially limits a major life activity. The activity most obviously affected by irritable bowel syndrome is waste elimination. The Commission has not taken a position on whether this would be considered a major life activity within the meaning of the ADA; however, we have made it clear that the examples of major life activities listed in our regulations and other policy guidance documents are illustrative, not exhaustive. Thus, it is certainly possible that waste elimination could be considered a major life activity. Irritable bowel syndrome also may affect other major life activities for certain individuals, such as caring for oneself.
The next determination would be whether a person's difficulty with waste elimination, or any other major life activity, could be considered "substantial." Minor symptoms, although inconvenient, would probably not be sufficient to meet the ADA definition. Thus, it would be
important to know exactly how irritable bowel syndrome affects a particular person in order to say whether that individual meets the ADA definition of "disability."
I hope this information is helpful. This letter does not represent an official opinion of the Commission.
Christopher J. Kuczynski
Assistant Legal Counsel
ADA Policy Division
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