Saturday, February 4, 2023

No Definitive List of Disabilities in Federal or California Law

Savage-EMy employee says she has a fragrance sensitivity and is demanding that I purchase unscented products for our cleaning service to use, even though the service provides its own products as part of our contract. She claims it is required as a disability accommodation, but I don’t think a fragrance sensitivity qualifies as a disability. Where can I find an official list of disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

For California employers, who are subject to both the ADA and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), an employee is disabled if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more of the major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment. The definition of a disability is broader under FEHA than under the ADA.

Case-by-Case Decision

Neither the ADA nor FEHA contain a definitive list of medical conditions that constitute disabilities. Therefore, the issue of whether an employee is disabled will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

For example, morbid obesity may be a protected disability where an individual is limited in one or more major life activities, such as bending or walking, or is regarded as being disabled.

On the other hand, a recent federal appeals court decision determined that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may not be protected under the ADA where it causes difficulty interacting with peers and subordinates, because the ability to get along with a select group of individuals is not a major life activity.

Fragrance Sensitivity

In the case of fragrance sensitivity, an individual’s respiratory or skin allergy reactions may be severe enough to limit major life activities (i.e. breathing, working) and therefore qualify as a protected disability. If so, the employer would be required to reasonably accommodate the employee’s disability unless it is an undue hardship to do so.

It would likely be difficult to show that the relatively minor expense of purchasing unscented cleaning products would be an undue hardship.

More Information

For more information about fragrance sensitivities, visit the Job Accommodation Network at askjan.org, a service of the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor.

For more information about how to determine whether a person has a disability under the ADA, visit askjan.org.

Detailed information about disability accommodation is also available on the California Chamber of Commerce HRCalifornia website in the Disabilities and Accessibility Library (www.hrcalifornia.com).


The Labor Law Helpline is a service to California Chamber of Commerce preferred and executive members. For expert explanations of labor laws and Cal/OSHA regulations, not legal counsel for specific situations, call (800) 348-2262 or submit your question at www.hrcalifornia.com.

Staff contact: Ellen Savage

Ellen Savage
Ellen Savage
Ellen Savage joined the CalChamber in 1990 and currently serves as an HR adviser. She has been assisting employers on the Helpline since 1993. She was the editor of eight editions of the California Labor Law Digest and author of the CalChamber's California Hiring to Termination Guide. Her experience also includes practicing at a large Sacramento law firm and presenting at dozens of employment law seminars statewide. She holds a J.D. from Lincoln Law School.

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