Islets of Hope  Is diabetes a disability?  What civil rights laws protect diabetics?

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Written by Lahle Wolfe

Source:  Publication PA-04-2006; Revised 12/06; Published by Islets of Hope, Diabetes and civil rights law: "An overview of your legal right to equal access to programs, benefits, opportunity, accommodations, education, and employment"  Read full publication (.pdf)

In August 2007, California courts rendered a landmark decision by legally establishing that children with diabetes were disabled according to both state and federal legal definitions and therefore, have protected rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1973 as well as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


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Diabetes and Civil Rights Laws
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
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Definition of "Major Life Activities"

For a person to have a disability covered by the ADA, an impairment must “substantially limit one or more major life activities.” These are activities that an average person can perform with little or no difficulty. Examples include, but are not limited to, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, working, or taking tests at school.  Other major life activities considered “normal” include sitting, standing, lifting, or reading.

A person with diabetes may suffer in many of the areas mentioned above as a result of diabetes-related blood sugar problems, as well as blood sugar problems that arise from medications and insulin. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) directly affects a person’s ability to walk, perform manual tasks, see, hear, talk, think, learn, communicate, and care for oneself.  During episodes of hypoglycemia a person with diabetes cannot participate in physical activities including standing and lifting.  During a severe hypoglycemic episode, they may not even be able to sit.
  • Hyperglycemia can impact a person’s ability to think, learn, and perform manual and other tasks, and participate in certain activities (i.e., a person with  hyperglycemia, especially when ketones are present in the urine, are not able to physically exert themselves without risk of medical complications).

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A Supreme Court Ruling in 1999 determined that it is the condition without corrective measures (i.e., prosthetic devices or medications) that is to be considered (i.e., a person with diabetes still may have impairment from diabetes even if insulin is used to manage the disease).  MURPHY v. UNITED PARCEL SERVICE, INC.; certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the tenth circuit; No. 97-1992. Argued April 27, 1999--Decided June 22, 1999.

On the web:

The importance of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1974 for diabetics

In these amendments, it was clarified in prong three; “(iii)  is regarded as having such an impairment" that even if the actual mental or physical condition itself is not an impairment (i.e., your diabetes is well-controlled and you do not need special accommodations), having rights and access denied as a result of negative public reaction to the person with the condition, is an impairment and therefore, could be qualified as having a disability.

An example includes a person with an extreme facial abnormality who can perform a job without accommodations.  Because the condition is simply cosmetic it is not considered an impairment.  However, the person may still qualify as disabled if no one will hire or promote them simply because of their deformity under prong three of the ADA.

This third prong is very important to people with diabetes because they are often shunned or banned to dirty bathrooms to provide critical medical care for themselves.  This third prong protects against public and employer ignorance that seeks to restrict the necessary medical care a person with diabetes requires.

Read more about your right to administer diabetes self-care at work and in public places.


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Page Updated 08/15/2007