The Americans with Disabiities Act1 (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that provides broad protections against discrimination based upon disability. Although very small employers (those with less than fifteen employees) are not covered by the ADA, most other employers are covered and are thus barred from certain forms of discrimination when hiring employees, or when it becomes necessary to accommodate an employee's disability in the workplace.
Color vision deficiencies (often popularly called "color blindness") are not ordinarily an issue in the workplace, as most employers neither ask about nor test for deficient color vision. Exceptions arise in some occupations, such as certain law enforcement and transportation jobs, based upon safety concerns. When the issue has come before the courts, job applicants and employees have not been successful in convincing courts that deficient color vision is a disability under the ADA, or that reasonable job restrictions related to color vision should not be permitted under the ADA.
The ADA defines a disability, with respect to an individual, as meaning that the individual:
Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;
Has a record of such an impairment; or
Has been subjected to an action prohibited by the ADA based upon being regarded as having such an impairment -- that is, when an employer takes action prohibited by the ADA because of an actual or perceived impairment that is not both transitory (lasting six months or less) and minor -- whether or not the person is in fact impaired.
The definition of a major life activity is broad, encompassing such activities as being able to care for oneself, to perform manual tasks, or to see, hear, eat, sleep, breathe, learn , read, concentrate, think, communicate or work. The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity is made without regard to the actual or potential benefits of such measures as medication, medical equipment or appliances, prosthetics, hearing aids or implantable hearing devices, mobility devices.
The ADA does not list specific conditions that trigger its protections, such that any visual impairment must be evaluated under the ADA's definition of disability. Some visual impairments will rise to the level of a disability, but others will not. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers some guidance as to when blindness and vision impairments trigger workplace protections under the ADA, and how visual impairments may be accommodated in the workplace.
Although visual impairments are evaluated under the ADA without regard to the actual or potential benefits of low-vision devices, the corrective effects of ordinary contact lenses and eyeglasses may be considered when determining whether or not a visual impairment affects a major life activity.
Although the issue of color vision has not often been addressed by the nation's appellate courts, courts that have examined the issue have consistently found that color vision deficits are not a disability under the ADA. The opinions take the position that color vision deficits do not substantially impair a person's ability to participate in a major life activity. In some cases, the courts have observed that the job applicant complaining of discrimination only learned of the color vision deficit when applying for the job that was denied, with the applicant's prior ability to live a normal life establishing that the impairment did not affect a major life activity.
To the extent that a color vision impairment might exclude a person from a specific category of employment, either due to federal regulation2 or due to the independent adoption of standards by employers that, in the aggregate, effectively exclude the person from a type of job, courts have found that the person's inability to work in a specific type of job is not the same thing as a substantial limitation on the person's ability to work, because such a rule affects only the single job. Courts have held that otherwise valid physical job requirements involving characteristics or conditions that do not rise to the level of an impairment are permissible, as are requirements that relate to limiting, but not substantially limiting, characteristics that make an applicant less suitable for the job. Courts have recognized that due to safety concerns, contexts exist in which the ability to differentiate between colors may be deemed an essential job function.
One case of note arose in 1999, in which a man was denied employment as a sheriff's deputy due to his failing the color acuity portion of a vision test. Although the man was able to successfully complete the test with a perfect score while wearing tinted contact lenses, he was nonetheless denied employment. At trial, the jury found that the man was not disabled by his color deficiency, but they nonetheless awarded the man compensation based upon a finding that the Sheriff's Department regarded the man as disabled even though he was not. The Sheriff's Department appealed, and the appellate court found recognized that discrimination based upon the perception of disability can be as damaging a form of discrimination as that based on actual disability, the court found that a color vision requirement was a bona fide occupational requirement for patrol duties and that the application of that requirement did not constitute treating the man as if he were disabled.3 It might nonetheless be possible to prevail on a theory of perceived disability if color vision requirements were arbitrarily imposed, and were not related to essential job functions or safety.
All states have their own laws addressing discrimination in the workplace, and the state law definition of what condition constitutes a disability or triggers workplace protections may be broader than that of the ADA. State laws may also apply to employers that are not covered by the ADA. If a person with a color deficiency is denied a job or position on the basis of that deficiency, or is refused reasonable accommodation that would allow the employee to more easily perform job tasks, it is worth investigating whether the employer's action is impermissible under state law.
1. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq.
2. See, for example, 49 C.F.R. § 391.41(10), a federal regulation that requires that operators of commercial vehicles have "the ability to recognize the colors of traffic signals and devices showing standard red, green, and amber".
3. Diffey v. Riverside County Sheriff's Department, 84 Cal.App.4th 1031, 101 Cal.Rptr.2d 353 (2000).