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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An impairment must substantially limit one or more major life activities

An impairment is a disability under the ADA only if it “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  An individual must be unable to perform, or be significantly limited in the ability to perform, an activity compared to an average person in the general population.

Regulations in ADA and the Rehabilitation Act use three factors that must be considered in determining whether or not a person's impairment substantially limits a major life activity, and therefore, qualifies as a disability.  These three factors are:

  1. its nature and severity;
  2. how long it will last or is expected to last;
  3. its permanent or long term impact, or expected impact.

These three factors need to be considered because not all conditions or impairments are listed in anti-discrimination statutes.  Rather, it is the effect an impairment has on an individual’s life and not the name of an impairment or a condition that determines whether or not a person is protected by the ADA.

Some impairments such as blindness and deafness are by their nature substantially limiting, but many other impairments including diabetes may be disabling for some individuals but not for others, depending on the impact on their activities.



Important point to remember
The determination as to whether an individual is “substantially limited” must always be based on the effect of an impairment(s) on that individual's life activities.

This is important to remember because not all persons with diabetes require accommodations or are, by definition, “disabled.”  But for those whose impairment does limit them, they are covered under the ADA and The Rehabilitation Act.

If an individual has more than one  impairment, none of which by itself substantially limits a major life activity, but that together does, the individual has a disability.

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Applying the three limitation factor to diabetes

Limitation factor

How it pertains to diabetes

1.  It’s nature and severity

Diabetes is a disease of the endocrine system that can be severe, causing the need for substantial changes in lifestyle.  Out-of-control diabetes can lead to serious complications, even death. 

Blood sugar fluctuations as a result of diabetes and the treatment of diabetes itself (i.e. insulin and oral medications) requires blood sugar testing and prompt treatment for high or low blood sugars.

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) causes both physical and mental impairment including weakness, confusion, and significant cognitive ability.  High blood sugars can also cause problems for people with diabetes.

Anyone with diabetes who takes insulin is always at the potential risk of death from untreated hypoglycemia.

2.  How long it will last or is expected to last

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are incurable.  Once a person has become diabetic (type 1 or type 2) they will always be diabetic.

3.  Its permanent or long-term impact or expected impact

It is well documented that diabetes can lead to serious  complications including blindness, amputation, kidney failure, nerve damage, loss of normal digestive function, stroke, heart attack, seizure, coma, and death.  Many of the complications of diabetes, once they occur, are irreversible. 



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Page Updated 08/15/2007