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Understanding how California law classifies disability

Employees in California might understand that there are certain protections under the law for the employment of those who are disabled, but they may not be fully aware of how disability is classified under the law. When there is a belief that an employee has faced illegal employment discrimination due to a disability, knowing how various disabilities are classified and what the employer requirements are based on are integral parts of having a viable lawsuit. According to the Fair Employment and Housing Act, there are two different categories of disability: mental and physical. People with a mental disability need to know that they should receive accommodations just as a person with a physical disability would.

A physical disability includes an anatomical loss, a physiological disease, a disorder, a condition or a cosmetic disfigurement that has an affect on one or more of the body's systems and limits a major life activity. Body systems can vary from musculoskeletal, special senses, respiratory, digestive and much more. The employer is not allowed to consider medications the worker must take, the need to use a wheelchair or any other device or requirement that the employee must take to deal with the disability. It can be considered if the devices or mitigating measures limit a major life activity.

Mental disability is classified as emotional illness, mental illness, organic brain syndrome, learning disabilities or intellectual or cognitive disabilities. If the employee has a history of mental or psychological issues and the employer is aware of it, or if the employee is treated as if he or she has the mental condition or disorder, that worker is protected under the law. The following are not protected under this law: pyromania, compulsive gambling, sexual disorders and psychoactive substance use that result from illegal use of controlled substances.

If the employee has a medical condition linked to a cancer diagnoses, a history of cancer or a genetic characteristic, the employee is protected. The employer is only allowed to ask for medical records related to the disability when coming to a determination as to whether or not the employee is disabled. An exception is if a manager or supervisor needs to know about the illness or condition for safety reasons or for emergency care. Those who face illegal employment discrimination due to a disability or believe that they have been subjected to this treatment have rights and protections.

Source:, "Disability Under the Fair Employment & Housing Act: What you should know about the law -- What is disability under the law? pages 4-5," accessed on June 14, 2016

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