What Cognitive Disabilities Are Protected From Discrimination?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers and others from discriminating against those with physical, psychological, and cognitive disabilities. The ADA does not explicitly define the term "cognitive disability." Because different people use the term cognitive disability to refer to different impairments, it's not always clear which disabilities the ADA and similar laws protect.

What Is a Cognitive Disability?

Cognitive disability can refer to any of a number of conditions that severely limit cognition. Cognition is defined as the act or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. Thus, a cognitive disability is any condition that sufficiently impacts learning and knowing. This includes impairments affecting the capacities to learn, process, remember, or communicate information; awareness; and decision-making.

Cognitive disabilities can result from genetics, injury (such as traumatic brain injury or stroke), physical illness, mental illness, substance abuse, or medication. Cognitive disabilities include conditions such as:

  • ADHD
  • learning disabilities, like dyslexia
  • low IQ or intellectual disorder
  • Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia
  • certain mental illnesses (for example, generalized anxiety disorder), and
  • some developmental and/or intellectual disabilities, such as autism, Asperger's syndrome, and Down Syndrome.

Does the ADA Protect Cognitive Disabilities?

The ADA protects any impairment that significantly affects a major life activity, such as learning, communicating, seeing, caring for oneself, sleeping, and so on. Severe forms of any of the above cognitive disabilities should qualify for protection from the ADA under this definition.

If you have any of these disabilities, an employer cannot discriminate against you by not hiring you, demoting you, or firing you, as long as you can do the main duties required by the job. Your employer must also make reasonable accommodations to help you do your job, such as providing written instructions rather than oral instructions (or vice versa), additional training, or more time to complete certain projects. For more on the ADA and reasonable accommodations, see our series of articles on ADA protections.

Discrimination for a Cognitive Disability

If you were fired, demoted, not hired, or otherwise treated badly because of a cognitive disability, you may have a claim under the ADA. To exercise your rights, request a free consultation with a disability lawyer in your area, who can help you file a claim with the EEOC and a lawsuit, if necessary.

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