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Legal Module

Defining “Disability” in Federal Laws

There are several definitions of disability in federal law. For example, laws related to employment, housing, and to veterans affairs all use different definitions and criteria for determining who is qualified to receive protections and services (CESSI, 2003). The definitions found in Section 504 and the ADA relate directly to the treatment of students with disabilities in postsecondary education. In response to what Congress believed was a restriction by the courts of the original intent of the ADA of 1990 (§2(a), codified at 42 U.S.C. §12101), the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008 clarified the definition of disability. This definition additionally was applied to Section 504. The ADAAA defines disability as follows:


(1) Disability – The term ‘disability’ means, with respect to an individual - (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment (§3(1)(A)(B)(C), codified at 42 U.S.C. §12102).


The ADAAA expanded the list of major life activities protected by the legislation. Major life activities are noted to include, but to not be limited to:

  • Caring for oneself
  • Performing manual tasks
  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Eating
  • Sleeping
  • Walking
  • Standing
  • Lifting
  • Bending
  • Speaking
  • Breathing
  • Learning
  • Communicating
  • Working

Notably, the ADAAA also lists reading, concentrating, thinking (§3(2)(A), and major bodily functions as covered conditions. “Major Bodily Functions” include neurological and brain functions, among others (§3(2)(B).




Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of (ADAAA) of 2008, PL 110-325, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1201 et seq.


CESSI (2003). Federal statutory definitions of disability. Prepared for The Interagency Committee on Disability Research. Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://www.icdr.us/documents/definitions.htm .


Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as Amended, Section 504, PL 93-112, 29 U.S.C. §794 (1998).


Permission is granted to copy this document for educational purposes; however, please acknowledge your source using the following citation:

UDI Online Project. (2010). Legal Module. Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, University of Connecticut, Storrs. http://www.udi.uconn.edu/index.php?q=content/legal-module