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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Is gestational diabetes or pre-diabates considered a disability?

Niether gestational nor pre-diabetes would typically be able to be classified as a disability.

Read why not


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Diabetes and Civil Rights Laws
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
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Definition of physical and mental impairments

“Impairment” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is defined as a having physiological or mental disorder.

Neither the statute nor the regulations of ADA or The Rehabilitation Act list all diseases or conditions specifically mentioned under "physical or mental impairments."  This does not mean that something not listed is not covered.  It would be impossible to provide a comprehensive list, given the variety of possible impairments and so both the ADA and The Rehabilitation Act use the “three prongs” to define a disability.

A physical impairment is defined as:

"Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, hemic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine."  (See note 1, below.)

A mental impairment is defined  as:

"[a]ny mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities."



Note 1:  Diabetes is a permanent, incurable disease of the endocrine system that requires major lifestyle changes, medical interventions, and limitations.  Diabetes may be considered an impairment under both ADA and The Rehabilitation Act based on the definition of “physical impairment” even though it is not specifically mentioned.


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What is not considered an impairment?

Anti-discrimination laws have been amended several times to help clarify what and who is covered.  The following are examples of things that are not considered impairments and therefore, would not be considered a disability:

  • Environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantages, such as lack of education or a prison record;
  • A physical condition that is not the result of a physiological disorder, such as pregnancy;
  • Having a predisposition to a certain disease;
  • Physical characteristics, such as eye or hair color, left-handedness, or height or weight within a normal range;
  • Personality traits including poor judgment, quick temper or irresponsible behavior;
  • Sexual orientation;
  • Sexual behavior including transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments;
  • Behavior disorders including compulsive gambling, kleptomania, or pyromania;
  • Psychoactive substance use disorders that result from current illegal use of drugs; and
  • Religious beliefs that restrict a person’s activities.

Sometimes, understanding the law can be tricky.  For example, a person who cannot read due to lack of education or inability to speak English would not be considered disabled.  But a person who could not read because they have dyslexia could be considered disabled under ADA because dyslexia is an impairment.

Depression is not considered an impairment unless it is a result of another documented impairment such as a mental disorder.  Stress is not considered a disability either.  However, if a person has been diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having an identifiable stress disorder, it may be considered a disability because the stress disorder itself may be an impairment.

Having a contagious disease may be considered an impairment.  The Supreme Court has already ruled that an individual with tuberculosis which affected her respiratory system had an impairment under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act [U.S. Supreme Court in School Board of Nassau County v. Arline.  480 U.S. 273, reh_g denied, 481 U.S. 1024 (1987), on remand, 692 F. Supp. 1286 (M.D.Fla. 1988)]. 

This important Supreme Court decision not only affects persons with contagious disease (i.e., persons with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) are considered to have an impairment) the wording also affects persons with non-contagious disease like diabetes.


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Page Updated 08/15/2007