ADA: Is Lack of an Ability the Same as a Disability

Posted by Edward Sharkey on Fri, 06/27/2014 - 04:00

We’ve often posted about employers’ struggles with issues related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). One challenge businesses sometimes face is figuring out whether a particular employee should be deemed disabled.

This is important because the ADA covers only those employees who, among other things, have a disability. In a recent opinion, the Texas Supreme Court explained an interesting consideration – the difference between an employee with a disability covered by the ADA and one who merely lacks an ability required for a specific job.

The Texas case concerned a fireman. On two occasions, the fireman was too anxious to enter a burning building to which he had been dispatched as part of a firefighting crew. The fireman's employer reassigned him from the firefighting crew to a training facility.

The fireman sued his employer, claiming that the reassignment was disability discrimination under the ADA. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the firefighter, and the trial court entered a judgment on that verdict. The Texas Supreme Court reversed the judgment on the ground that the fireman failed to prove that he had a disability.

Under the ADA, an employee has a disability if he has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. In determining whether an employee is substantially limited, the key is whether the employee is unable to perform the tasks central to most people's daily lives. An inability to perform the tasks associated with a specific job or the lack of a special skill that most people do not have is not a disability.

The Texas court applied this standard and concluded that the fireman's inability to overcome the fear of entering a burning building is not a disability under the ADA. Most people would not have the ability to overcome the natural fear of entering a burning building. The court gave an additional example: lacking the special skill required to play sports at a professional level is not a disability.

The relevance of cases like this to other employers and other jobs is always uncertain. Still, the case serves as an important reminder for any employer assessing an employee’s ADA claim: to be covered by the Act, the employee must have an impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity. Lacking a special skill that is required to perform a particular job is not necessarily the same thing.

Call Today (301) 657-8184

 Google+  View Edward Sharkey's profile on LinkedIn