The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects against a type of discrimination called “regarded as disabled.” An example of how this type of discrimination could arise follows:
An employee has a serious health condition that hasn’t been diagnosed yet and he discloses to his employer that he needs to miss work for an hour to go to a doctor’s appointment on a couple occasions. The employee uses his vacation time, and his work is covered by coworkers. The employee does not need additional accommodations other than these occasional doctor’s appointments. The employer approaches the employee and tells him that he should take a leave of absence to deal with his health issues, and that he must complete a “fitness for duty exam” with his doctor before he can return to work. The employee uses all his vacation time after two weeks and then goes on unpaid leave. Due to scheduling issues the employee doesn’t complete the fitness for duty exam with his doctor yet. The employer then terminates the employee.
This employee was discriminated against by the employer because the employer treated him as if he was disabled, even though we don’t know if the employee, in fact, was disabled. The employee’s health condition may have been caused by a condition that could easily have resolved (which would not qualify as a disability) or could have been something more serious. The important distinction legally is that under this type of discrimination claim, the employee does not have to prove he had a disability, but only that the employer treated him as if he did and that it discriminated against him for that reason when it put him on unpaid leave and then terminated him.