This document was rescinded in December 2019 as part of EEOC's effort to provide guidance and information that is current, accurate, and clear.
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-Sleep Apnea
This responds to your June 12, 2003, letter inquiring whether you might be considered an individual with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) based on your sleep apnea and/or blindness in one eye. Specifically, you state that due to your sleep apnea you use a "cpap machine" at night, and that the sleep apnea has an effect on you at home, at work, and with respect to driving if you do not use the "cpap machine." You also state that although you are legally blind in your right eye, you are nevertheless able to drive based on the vision in your left eye. While we cannot by informal correspondence provide an opinion regarding any particular individual's legal claim or potential legal claim, this letter is intended to offer general information regarding the legal issue about which you have inquired.
Under Title I of the ADA, an employer cannot discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability. An "individual with a disability" as defined under the ADA 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. EEOC Regulation 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i) defines "major life activities" as "functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working." The Interpretive Guidance to the regulations further notes that "other major life activities include, but are not limited to, sitting, standing, lifting, [and] reaching." 29 C.F.R. Part 1630 Appendix § 1630.2(i). The Commission has also identified "[m]ental and emotional processes such as thinking, concentrating, and interacting with others" as examples of major life activities. EEOC Compliance Manual, Vol. 2, Section 902, Definition of the Term "Disability" (March 14, 1995) ("Compliance Manual") at 902-15. Sleeping has also been recognized by the Commission and numerous courts as a major life activity. However, many courts that have considered the question of whether driving is a major life activity have concluded that it is not. See, e.g., Champlin v. Wonewoc-Center School, 2003 WL 21509038 (7th Cir. 2003); Chenoweth v. Hillsborough County, 250 F.3d 1328, 1329-30 (11th Cir. 2001); Colwell v. Suffolk County Police Dept., 158 F.3d 635, 643 (2d Cir. 1998).
An impairment is substantially limiting when it prevents an individual from performing a major life activity or when it significantly restricts the condition, manner or duration under which an individual can perform a major life activity, compared to the average person in the general population. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j). "An impairment is substantially limiting if it lasts for more than several months and significantly restricts the performance of one or more major life activities during that time . . . . In addition, some conditions may be long-term, or potentially long-term, in that their duration is indefinite and unknowable or is expected to be at least several months. Such conditions, if severe, may constitute disabilities." EEOC Enforcement Guidance on the Americans With Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities (March 25, 1997) ("Psychiatric Disabilities Guidance"), available at http://www.eeoc.gov/docs/psych.html, at question 7; Compliance Manual at 902-30.
The determination of whether a person is substantially limited in a major life activity within the meaning of the ADA definition of "disability" must assess the person's limitations in light of any "mitigating measures" the person uses. See Sutton v. United Airlines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999); Murphy v. United Parcel Service, 527 U.S. 516 (1999). Mitigating measures can include things such as medications, corrective lenses, hearing aids, and prostheses, and could potentially include items such as a machine used during sleep to lessen the incidents or effects of sleep apnea. Mitigating measures also include any compensating behaviors an individual develops that limit the effects of an impairment. Albertsons, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, 527 U.S. 555 (1999). A person who is not substantially limited in performing a major life activity when using a mitigating measure does not meet the ADA's definition of having an actual "disability." Thus, in determining whether the impairment of sleep apnea substantially limits an individual in any major life activities, the Commission and courts will take into account the use of a mitigating measure the individual happens to use, examining whether the individual is substantially limited in a major life activity notwithstanding their use of the mitigating measure. See, e.g., Taylor v. Blue Cross and Blue Shield, 55 F. Supp. 2d 604 (N.D. Tex. 1999) (employee with sleep apnea sought time off for sleep study and was terminated shortly thereafter; condition not a disability where sleep apnea was completely corrected after diagnosis and use of air pressure machine, and employee able to drive, hold conversations, communicate, and perform his job).
An impairment substantially limits an individual's ability to sleep if, due to the impairment, his/her sleep is significantly restricted as compared to the average person in the general population, on a long-term or potentially long-term basis. For example, an individual who sleeps only a negligible amount without medication for many months, due to post-traumatic stress disorder, would be significantly restricted as compared to the average person in the general population and therefore would be substantially limited in sleeping. Similarly, an individual who for several months typically slept about two to three hours per night without medication, due to depression, also would be substantially limited in sleeping. By contrast, an individual would not be substantially limited in sleeping if s/he had some trouble getting to sleep or sometimes slept fitfully because of a mental impairment. Although this individual may be slightly restricted in sleeping, s/he is not significantly restricted as compared to the average person in the general population. See Psychiatric Disabilities Guidance at question 11. The determination of whether a particular person is substantially limited in sleeping is therefore a very fact-specific, individualized determination, and courts have reached varying conclusions depending upon the evidence of the limitation in a given case. McAlindin v. County of San Diego, 192 F. 3d 1226 (9th Cir. 1999), cert. denied, 530 U.S. 1243 (2000) (holding that plaintiff, who had anxiety disorders, raised a triable issue as to whether he was substantially limited in sleeping where the evidence showed that despite the use of medication he was frequently unable to sleep); but see Boerst v. General Mills Operations Inc., 2002 WL 59637 (6th Cir. 2002) (holding that getting only a little bit of sleep, 2-4 hours a night, due to an impairment is not a substantial limitation).
Finally, with respect to the major life activity of seeing, the Supreme Court held that a person who has monocular vision is not automatically substantially limited in seeing, but rather that an individualized assessment is required to determine whether, taking into account an individual's compensatory strategies, if any, for the loss of vision of one eye, the individual is substantially limited in seeing. Albertsons, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, 527 U.S. 555 (1999). In Kirkingburg, the Supreme Court noted that "people with monocular vision ordinarily will meet the [ADA's] definition of disability" due to a loss of depth perception and visual field that is frequently substantially limiting. 527 U.S. at 567.
This has been an informal discussion of the issues you raised and does not constitute an official opinion of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Senior Attorney Advisor
This page was last modified on December 18, 2019.
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