As a Federal Employee Attorney practicing over the past 24 years, one of the most popular questions I am asked by my clients is whether or not they are considered disabled and protected by federal laws. The typical federal employee who asks this question is often perplexed by the myriad of definitions of disability that we find in the federal sector.
Why should this question be so difficult to answer? I mean — either you have a disability, or you do not, right?!
Unfortunately, the confusion lies in the fact that there are at least 6 different definitions of disability under federal employee law that are unique to specific areas of law. These areas include: EEO, FMLA, OPM Disability Retirement, Social Security Disability, FECA Workers’ Compensation, and Labor Agreements.
In answering the question for my clients, I begin by determining which law governs the definition of disability based on the specific right that governs the employee’s request.
If a client wants to know if they are disabled for their EEO Reasonable Accommodation or to protect them from Disability Discrimination my answer is governed by the following:
To answer that question, we must begin with the definition of disability under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, otherwise known as the ADA for Federal Employees. As amended by the ADA Amendments Act, the ADA’s definition of disability remains:
A disability, with regard to an individual, is:
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual;
- A record of such an impairment; or
- Being regarded as having such an impairment. 42 USC 12102 (1).
Let’s be real though; that’s a very confusing definition, so let me make this as simple as possible. In practical terms, to be disabled under EEO laws you really just need to have a legitimate medical condition that is not a very short-term injury or condition like the flu, a cold, a sprained ankle, a broken arm, or something that will heal in a few weeks. Anything else will have you covered by the law and allow you to use its protections against disability discrimination and to request a reasonable accommodation.
Examples of easily accepted conditions are deafness, blindness, diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, intellectual disabilities, partial or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheel chair, autism, cerebral palsy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia.
If you have a medical condition that is not temporary, you are more than likely considered disabled under federal EEO laws and can request and be granted a reasonable accommodation or assert disability discrimination.