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"
August 6, 2001
This is in response to your letter of May 29, 2001, in which you asked whether an employer could be found to have "regarded" an employee as having a disability solely because the employer provided the individual with a "reasonable accommodation."
Under the ADA, an employer regards an individual as having a disability if the employer treats him or her as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Providing an accommodation, by itself, does not mean that an employer regards an individual as having a substantially limiting impairment. Many types of "reasonable accommodations" - e.g., modified schedules, working at home, leave, changes in supervisory methods, certain specialized equipment - are the types of workplace changes provided by employers to employees with and without ADA disabilities. Thus, at most, provision of an accommodation could mean the employer believes the individual to have an impairment that causes some limitation. Moreover, providing an accommodation would appear to be an indication that the employer believes the individual can work rather than evidence of a belief that the individual is substantially limited in working.
Courts have generally agreed that a plaintiff cannot show "regarded as" coverage solely because the employer provided a reasonable accommodation, including job modifications and medical leave. See, e.g., Plant v. Morton International, Inc., 212 F.3d 929 (6th Cir. 2000), Mobley v. Board of Regents of University System of Georgia, 924 F. Supp. 1179 (S.D. Ga. 1996), and Johnson v. Boardman Petroleum, Inc., 923 F. Supp. 1563 (S.D. Ga. 1996). The ADA is not intended to discourage employers from assisting employees in an effort to foster good relations, improve morale, and avoid confrontation and litigation. These objectives would be undermined if "regarded as" coverage could result solely from an employer providing accommodation.
However, courts have found "regarded as" coverage where there is additional evidence beyond the provision of a reasonable accommodation. For example, courts have found "regarded as" coverage possible where the provision of an accommodation is linked to an employer's belief that the person has a disability; there are statements by the employer that an employee's medical information reveals the existence of a disability; or a forced accommodation, such as reassignment, reveals the employer's belief that the employee is unable to perform his job because of his impairment. See, e.g., McInnis v. Alamo Community College, 207 F.3d 276 (5th Cir. 2000), and EEOC v. R.J. Gallagher Co., 181 F.3d 645 (5th Cir. 1999).
Some employers, as a precaution to ensure that they are not triggering "regarded as" coverage, provide requested workplace changes but do not make any statements that in doing so they have determined that an individual meets the ADA definition of "disability." Other employers provide an accommodation without using the legal term "reasonable accommodation" or referencing the ADA. Adopting these steps will not guarantee that an employer will not be found to have "regarded" an individual as having a disability based on other evidence. But, these steps should alleviate your concerns that "regarded as" coverage could be found based solely on providing an individual with a workplace modification.
I hope that this information is helpful. This letter does not represent an official opinion of the EEOC.
Senior Attorney Advisor
This page was last modified on April 27, 2007.
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