Long COVID as a Disability Under Civil Rights Laws

July 14, 2023

En español

Welcome back to DRT’s blog series related to the end of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE). This is our fourth blog post in a series looking at the lingering effects of the pandemic in the wake of the federal government’s announcement that the PHE is over. Today, we are looking at how Long COVID can qualify as a disability under various federal civil rights laws.

Review: Long COVID Definition

As a reminder from our most recent blog post in this series (linked here), the “working definition” for Long COVID is as follows:

“Long COVID is broadly defined as signs, symptoms, and conditions that continue or develop after initial COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 infection. The signs, symptoms, and conditions are present four weeks or more after the initial phase of infection; may be multisystemic; and may present with a relapsing– remitting pattern and progression or worsening over time, with the possibility of severe and life-threatening events even months or years after infection. Long COVID is not one condition. It represents many potentially overlapping entities, likely with different biological causes and different sets of risk factors and outcomes.”

That federal interim definition can be found by clicking here. It was developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in collaboration with other departments, and it may be subject to future change pursuant to National Research Action Plan on Long COVID (found here) efforts to further develop the definition and to better align definitions used in clinical care.

Long COVID As a Disability Under Federal Civil Rights Laws

The information we are providing in this blog as it relates to Long COVID as a disability is taken from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice Human Services Civil Rights Division’s guidance, which you can find by clicking here. That guidance on Long COVID as a disability addresses the definition of “disability” under certain Federal civil rights laws; however, it does not cover how Long COVID might meet eligibility requirements for federal programs, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Our next blog will take a closer look at Long COVID in the disability benefits context, which further requires that applicants be unable to work and have health conditions that last for at least one year or result in death.

Long COVID Can Be a Physical Or Mental Impairment that Substantially Limits One or More Major Life Activities

Long COVID can qualify as a disability under Titles II (state and local government) and III (public accommodations) of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. A person with long COVID has a disability if the person’s condition or any of its symptoms is a “physical or mental impairment” that “substantially limits” one or more major life activities.

A physical impairment includes any physiological disorder or condition affecting one or more body systems, including, among others, the neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular, and circulatory systems.  A mental impairment includes any mental or psychological disorder, such as an emotional or mental illness. Because Long COVID is a physiological condition affecting one or more body systems, it qualifies as a mental or physical impairment.

The federal government’s guidance provides that “major life activities” include a wide range of practices, such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, writing, communicating, interacting with others, and working.  It also includes operation of a major bodily function.

The term “substantially limits” is broadly interpreted.  Limitations resulting from the “physical or mental impairment” need not be severe, permanent, or long-term, and such limitations are assessed in the absence of medication, treatment, or other measures used to lessen symptoms.  Here are some illustrations provided in the federal guidance of how Long COVID might substantially limit a major life activity:

  • A person with long COVID who has lung damage that causes shortness of breath, fatigue, and related effects is substantially limited in respiratory function, among other major life activities. 
  • A person with long COVID who has symptoms of intestinal pain, vomiting, and nausea that have lingered for months is substantially limited in gastrointestinal function, among other major life activities.   
  • A person with long COVID who experiences memory lapses and “brain fog” is substantially limited in brain function, concentrating, and/or thinking.

Whether Long COVID Qualifies as a Disability Requires Individual Assessment

Long COVID does not always qualify as a disability under federal civil rights laws – assessment is necessary to determine whether a person’s long COVID substantially limits a major life activity. Where it does qualify as a disability, persons with Long COVID are entitled to the same protections from discrimination as any other person with a disability under the ADA, Section 504, and Section 1557. 

Previous Blogs in This Series

The End of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE)

End of the Public Health Emergency & Information on Long COVID

Long COVID: What It Is & What You Need to Know