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Many serious conditions don’t amount to disabilities

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in Human Resources

The ADA protects only truly disabled employees from discrimination. It isn’t enough that someone has been diagnosed with a medical condition—even a serious-sounding one like diabetes or a hepatitis infection.

Each ADA case is judged on how the illness affects the individual, and there are wide ranges, even among people with the same disease. Some people may be practically incapacitated, while others may get on with their daily lives with few problems.

Before you agree to an accommodation, get details from the employee about how the illness affects his life. The test is whether it substantially impairs a major life function such as walking, talking, breathing or caring for oneself. The key is to compare the employee’s limitations to those of the average person. For example, being unable to run a marathon probably doesn’t qualify since most people can’t. But being unable to walk more than a few feet without gasping for breath may qualify.

Bottom line: If the condition doesn’t substantially affect the employee, he’s not disabled and not entitled to any accommodations.

Recent case: Michael Baker, who was infected with the hepatitis C virus, worked for CSX Transportation. He eventually lost his job due to what the company said was downsizing. Baker sued, alleging that he had really been sacked because he was disabled.

The court looked at how Baker got along on a day-to-day basis. Baker claimed he had trouble sleeping and could no longer engage in what he called recreational running. The court ruled that wasn’t enough to make him disabled, so the ADA did not protect him. (Baker v. CSX Transportation, No. 05-CV-6559, WD NY, 2008)

Final note: Not sure whether an employee is disabled? If the accommodations he’s requesting are minor, it may make sense to make them, pending more information. Accommodating is not tantamount to admitting the employee is disabled.

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