The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

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 - In General

February 29, 2000

Dear :

This is in response to your letter of December 1, 1999, requesting information as to whether the Federal Aviation Administration can disqualify persons whose vision cannot be corrected to 20-20 from serving as Air Traffic Controllers.

Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, (1) as amended, federal agencies cannot discriminate against qualified individuals with disabilities. An individual with a "disability" is a person who: (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 as having a substantially limiting impairment. Last year, in three cases interpreting Title I of the ADA, the Supreme Court ruled that if an individual uses a "mitigating measure" that eliminates the symptoms of an impairment or reduces them to a point at which they are no longer substantially limiting, then the individual does not meet the ADA's first definition of disability. See Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 119 S.Ct. 2139 (1999); Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 119 S.Ct. 2133 (1999); and Albertsons v. Kirkingburg, 119 S.Ct. 2162 (1999). Mitigating measures include corrective lenses. Therefore, if a person has little or no difficulty seeing when using corrective lenses, then the person does not have a substantially limiting impairment.

Nor does a person meet the statute's third definition of "disability" solely because s/he fails to meet an employer's physical qualification standard, such as a vision requirement. In Sutton, the Supreme Court said that employers may determine that certain impairments make individuals less than ideally suited for particular jobs. An employer may, therefore, prefer someone without a particular impairment over someone with that impairment, as long as the impairment is not a disability. Sutton also states that "global airline pilot" is not a "class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes." Thus, excluding someone from the job of "global airline pilot" did not, according to the Court, amount to regarding the individual as substantially limited in working. A similar analysis would likely apply to the job of Air Traffic Controller, which probably would not be a class of jobs. The fact that the position of Air Traffic Controller is found in over 250 locations does not make it a class of jobs. Like Air Traffic Controller positions, the global pilot positions at issue in Sutton were also available in many locations.

I hope this information is helpful. This letter does not represent an official opinion of the EEOC.


Christopher J. Kuczynski
Assistant Legal Counsel

ADA Policy Division

1. The Rehabilitation Act uses the same standards as those found in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). See Rehabilitation Act Amendment of 1992, Pub. L. No. 102-569, § 503(b), 106 Statute. 4344 (1992) (codified as amended at 29 U.S.C. § 791(g).

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