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Does an on-the-job injury constitute a disability under the ADA?


This article addresses the contentions between the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) and state workers’ compensation laws. Both laws provide different protections for employees related to their physical disabilities and/or injuries. The ADA protects employees from discrimination based on a qualifying disability, while workers’ compensation laws protect employees by securing prompt and fair settlement of employee claims against employers for occupational injury and/or illness. While these laws do not necessarily conflict, the relationship between them has raised a number of questions for both employees and employers alike. In short, an employee must satisfy the requirements under both laws in order to invoke their protections.

What is an Occupational Impairment?

To determine whether an occupational impairment exists, an employee must look to state law. Each state has its own definition of what constitutes an occupational impairment. For example, in Alabama, workers’ compensation covers injuries, occupational diseases, or death caused by an “accident” that occurs during the course of employment. Once an employee experiences an on-the-job impairment, that employee can be rendered “disabled” by the state and receive benefits. However, just because a state declares an employee “disabled” as defined by workers’ compensation statutes, the employee does not automatically have an ADA qualifying “disability.” The employee’s impairment must also satisfy the ADA definition of “disability.”

What does “Disability” mean under the ADA?

As mentioned, the ADA requires an employee establish that he or she has a “qualifying disability.” This requirement seeks to establish that a requisite condition or illness, which renders the employee “disabled,” exists. The ADA defines “disability” as (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, (2) a record of such impairment, or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment. In order for an employee to claim that a workers’ compensation impairment is a “disability” under the ADA, an employee must be able to also satisfy the ADA’s definition of “disability.”

Implications of Occupational Impairments

Occupational injuries and/or illnesses must also be severe enough to substantially limit a major life activity to invoke the protections of the ADA. If not, the injury and/or illness may only be temporary or have minimal long-term impact. Additionally, an employee does not automatically satisfy the recorded impairment definition under the ADA by merely filing a workers’ compensation claim. The employee must have history of, or been misclassified as having, an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Lastly, an occupational impairment can
satisfy the “regarded as” definition if the employer treats the employee as having an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. This last “disability” definition under the ADA focuses on the employer’s actions toward the employee. Specifically, it addresses how the employer treats the employee’s occupational impairment.

If you feel your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act have been violated, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 319-9724. We are here to serve you.
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