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EEOC Informal Discussion Letter

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.

Definition of "Disability" - In General; Reasonable Accommodation

November 4, 1999


This letter responds to your letter of September 13, 1999, in which you ask three questions pertaining to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

First, you ask whether an employee must have a permanent disability before he/she is entitled to accommodation. As you probably know, the ADA has a specific, legal definition of "disability", and an individual must meet this definition in order to be entitled to the protections of the ADA, including accommodation. A "disability" within the meaning of the ADA is any one of the following: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) a record of such an impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment.

How long an impairment lasts is a factor to be considered, but it does not, by itself, determine whether a person is substantially limited in a major life activity. This question is answered by looking at the severity, impact, and duration of the impairment on the individual's major life activity. Certainly, if the limiting effects of an impairment are permanent or long-term (and severe), the condition will rise to the level of an ADA disability. However, an impairment does not have to be permanent in order to be considered substantially limiting, if it can be shown that it was either severe enough or had a long term impact, such that the individual was significantly restricted in performing a major life activity, or unable to perform the activity altogether. The EEOC has stated that an impairment must last for more than several months in order to be substantially limiting. See EEOC Enforcement Guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities, EEOC Notice No. 915.002, question 7, p.8 (March 25, 1997).

Your next question is whether an employee who is injured off the job, and who requires medical attention for an indefinite period of time, is covered. Once again, this depends upon whether or not he/she meets the definition of a disability under the ADA. The fact that the individual was injured off the job is not relevant. The fact that the individual requires medical attention for an indefinite period of time may help determine whether or not the impairment is severe enough or of such a duration that it is a substantial limitation of a major life activity. Once again, however, an analysis of the severity, impact, and duration must be individualized.

Finally, you ask whether an employer is required to accommodate an employee if the employee submits a request from his/her doctor. The doctor's note that your referenced in your question would be considered a request for reasonable accommodation under the ADA, as long as it informed the employer that the individual needed a change at work for a reason related to a medical condition. The employee does not need to use the words "reasonable accommodation", and the request may come from the employee's representative, including a doctor.

However, an individual will not be entitled to a reasonable accommodation simply because he or she has requested one. After the request is made, it may be necessary for the employer and the employee to engage in an informal, interactive process to clarify what the employee needs, and to identify the appropriate accommodation. An individual must have a disability within the meaning of the ADA in order to be entitled to reasonable accommodation. Thus, as part of this process, the employee may have to provide the employer with documentation demonstrating that he or she has a disability within the meaning of the ADA, and describing the limitations imposed by it, if the disability or the need for reasonable accommodation is not obvious. See EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, EEOC Notice No. 915.002, questions 6-8, pp.12-17 (March 1, 1999) (enclosed).

An employer does not have to provide any accommodation that would result in an undue hardship. Undue hardship means significant difficulty or expense, and it must be based upon an individualized assessment of the nature and cost of the accommodation, the employer's and other resources available to provide the accommodation, and the nature of the employer's business. See Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation, p. 54.

We hope this information is helpful. Please note, however, that this letter is an informal discussion of the issues raised, and is not an official opinion of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.


Christopher J. Kuczynski
Assistant Legal Counsel
ADA Policy Division

Enclosures (1)

This page was last modified on April 27, 2007.