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Function–not treatments–decides disability

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

The ADA covers employees who have a condition that substantially impairs a major life function like walking, talking, working or breathing. Conditions associated with ordinary aging or which are minor or temporary don’t count.

Carefully consider whether an employee really qualifies as disabled before providing reasonable accommodations. Don’t focus solely on the number of treatments an injury or condition requires. Focus instead on whether the condition substantially impairs a life function.

Recent case: Attendance and arriving on time was essential for Lana’s work for the Methacton School Dis­­­trict. She injured her knee and had to take time off for surgery and physical therapy. Over a two-year period, she had several operations and made a slow but steady recovery. She eventually walked with a slight limp, but confessed she eventually could do everything she had done before she was hurt, though perhaps a little slower.

When she wasn’t out on leave, she frequently arrived late for her 7 a.m. shift. She was eventually discharged after the school logged her in late at least 23 times during her final school year.

Lana sued, alleging she had been terminated because she was disabled. She claimed a cartilage tear in her left knee was a physical impairment that substantially limited her life activities, including walking, standing, bending and working.

But the court determined that Lana wasn’t disabled. It did note that she occasionally used a knee brace and had difficulty standing, walking and sitting for long periods of time without feeling discomfort. But in her own words, “At times I wear a brace still, but I can essentially do everything that I used to do before I was injured.” That admission helped convince the court she wasn’t permanently disabled. (Sampson v. Methacton School District, No. 11-4553, ED PA, 2015)

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