Is diabetes a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Is diabetes a disability? Do diabetic employees have any protection in the workplace? Does an employer have any obligation to its employee who have diabetes?

Millions of Americans live with diabetes—a disorder caused by the body’s inability to produce or use insulin. While diabetes can be managed and those affected can still lead normal lives, the disorder is still a disability and diabetic employees cannot be discriminated against because of their condition.

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which protects employees from being discriminated against because of their disability. This means that an employer cannot discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of his disability when it comes to hiring, firing, promotion, and pay. So, an employer cannot deny job benefits to a disabled employee or create tests that screen out otherwise qualified but disabled individuals.

The ADA also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees so that they can perform their jobs.

The ADA covers employers with fifteen or more employees, and, like most federal employment statutes, only applies to employees and not independent contractors. An employee is an individual that the employer has the right to control.

If an employee believes that he has been discriminated against on the basis of his disability, he must show that he has a disability as defined by the ADA, that he was otherwise qualified for the position, and that his employer failed to make a reasonable accommodation.

To qualify as a disability, diabetes must be a physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines a physical impairment as “any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.” Diabetes easily falls within this definition of physical impairment—it is a physiological disorder that affects the endocrine system.

An impairment is substantial if it makes a major life activity more difficult, more painful, or more time-consuming to perform than the general population. An impairment may also be substantial if it prevents the disabled person from enjoying that major life activity as long as the general population would. Diabetes also meets the test here. Employees with diabetes must take time our of their day to test their blood sugar levels and inject themselves with insulin. They must be more careful about what they eat and when.

Because diabetes is a disability under the ADA, employees with diabetes are protected from discrimination and their employers must provide them with reasonable accommodation. Thus, an employee cannot be fired because of his diabetes, he cannot be paid less because of his diabetes, nor can he be denied healthcare benefits because of his diabetes.

Reasonable Accommodation

An accommodation must enable a qualified, disabled employee to perform the essential function of his job. This may include changes to the job application process, changes to the work environment or job requirements, or changes to employee benefits. For example, a reasonable accommodation is making facilities accessible and usable by disabled employees. Similarly, an employer may restructure the job or make changes to the work schedule to accommodate a disabled employee. Regardless of the accommodation, the goal of the ADA is to require employers to provide an environment where disabled individuals can compete on equal footing with non-disabled individuals. Common accommodations include job restructuring, transfers to other positions or light duty, and leaves of absence.

Diabetic employees may need fewer accommodations than most disabled employees. For example, most will rarely require changes to facilities so that they can access and use their workspaces. However, because diabetes is a disability under the ADA, employers do have a legal duty to make a reasonable accommodation. To perform their jobs employees with diabetes will need time to monitor and manage their blood sugar levels. Some reasonable accommodations include breaks to eat or drink to raise employees’ blood sugar levels, private areas to test their blood sugar and inject insulin.

For example, an employer could allow a diabetic employee to take more breaks than other employees so he can maintain his blood sugar level and allow him to make up the time later.

Reasonable accommodations for diabetes are not limited to those listed above. Instead, as with any disability, a reasonable accommodation for an employee with diabetes is one that enable him to perform the essential functions of his job.