What’s the difference between an “impairment” and a “disability”?

Teacher/Coach Tanya Lyons believed that Katy ISD jerked her around because the higher ups in the district perceived her to have a disability.  The ADA and Section 504 protect employees from disability-based discrimination.  But the law is only concerned with “disabilities” not “impairments.”  Ms. Lyons may have had an “impairment” but she did not have a “disability.”  Therefore, the actions of the KISD could not possibly be discrimination based on disability.   

The decisive factor that tilted the court to favor the KISD was the transitory nature of Ms. Lyons’s impairment.  She had lap band surgery over the summer and was expected to fully recover within six months. That meant that she may have had an “impairment” but she did not have a “disability.” 

Duration is one factor that distinguishes “impairments” from “disabilities.”  The other factor is the level of impact on a major life activity.  An “impairment” becomes a “disability” only if it substantially limits a person in a major life activity.  Look around at the faces in your next Zoom call and I bet you will see a lot of people wearing glasses.  That means they have an impairment—but if, with the glasses, their vision is adequate, they do not have a “disability.”

Notice that the law is only concerned with “major life activities.”   I used to be a runner.  I can’t do that anymore, due to the bad knees.  But running is not a major life activity, even though it was very important to me.  I still walk just fine, so in the major life activity of walking, I am not substantially impaired. 

You have to be precise with your language when dealing with the law.  In casual conversation I tend to treat “impairment” and “disability” as synonyms.  But when I’m wearing my lawyer hat, I have to remember the different definitions.  Almost all of us have impairments.  Some of us have disabilities.

It’s Lyons v. Katy ISD, decided by the 5th Circuit on June 29, 2020.  We found it at 2020 WL 3496855.


Tomorrow: Ex-cheerleader vents.