What Cognitive and Mental Disabilities Are Protected From Discrimination?

Employees and job applicants with cognitive or mental impairments are protected from discrimination under the ADA.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees and job applicants with physical and mental disabilities from discrimination. (42 U.S.C. 12102.) Mental disabilities can include any of the following:

  • cognitive impairments
  • emotional disorders
  • behavioral difficulties, and
  • psychological conditions.

The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations that allow qualified employees with mental disabilities and cognitive impairments to do their jobs.

This article describes how the ADA defines mental and cognitive disabilities. We'll also discuss some examples of reasonable accommodations for employees with cognitive impairments and mental disorders, and we'll finish by explaining what to do if you believe an employer is discriminating against you because of your disability.

What Mental and Cognitive Impairments Count as Disabilities Under the ADA?

The ADA protects employees and job applicants who have any impairment that significantly affects a major life activity, such as:

  • learning
  • concentrating
  • thinking
  • caring for yourself
  • interacting with others
  • working
  • sleeping, and
  • communicating.

To be protected, you don't have to be completely unable to do these activities, just "substantially limited." The ADA is intended to provide broad coverage for individuals with a range of impairments and to protect even those whose functioning is improved with medication or other treatment (42 U.S.C. § 12102(4)).

Under the ADA, you're considered "substantially limited" if, when compared to most people who don't have your condition, performing these activities:

  • is more difficult
  • takes more time
  • is more uncomfortable
  • is painful, or
  • is otherwise harder for you.

Which Mental Conditions Qualify as Disabilities Under the ADA?

Rather than listing conditions that are always considered disabling, the ADA focuses on how your condition affects your ability to perform the above activities. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces and interprets the ADA, has said that certain mental conditions should easily qualify as disabilities, such as:

  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • bipolar disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • major depression, and
  • personality disorders (such as antisocial or borderline personality disorder).

Depending on how the condition affects someone, many other mental disabilities, such as anxiety disorder, can qualify for ADA protection.

Which Cognitive Disabilities Are Covered by the ADA?

Cognitive disability can refer to many conditions that severely impact "cognition" (learning and understanding). Cognitive disabilities include impairments affecting awareness and decision-making and your capacity to:

  • learn
  • process
  • remember, or
  • communicate information.

Cognitive disabilities can result from genetics or injury (such as traumatic brain injury or stroke). They can be the result of physical or mental illness. Substance abuse and some medications can also cause cognitive impairments. Cognitive disabilities that can fall under ADA protection include conditions such as:

  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
  • learning disabilities, like dyslexia
  • intellectual disability (low IQ)
  • borderline intellectual functioning (medium-low IQ)
  • neurocognitive disorders caused by neurotrauma (brain damage or injury)
  • Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, and
  • some developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome and Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including Asperger's syndrome.

What's Not a Mental or Cognitive Disability Under the ADA?

The EEOC's guidance says that traits such as irritability, chronic lateness, and poor judgment aren't actually mental disabilities—though they can be symptoms of mental or cognitive impairments. Alcohol and drug addiction also don't count as mental disabilities under the ADA.

Who's Eligible for Protection Under the ADA?

The ADA covers workers at all companies with at least 15 employees. But if you work for a smaller employer, you might be protected by state disability discrimination laws.

The ADA protects only "qualified" people with disabilities from discrimination (42 U.S.C. § 12111(8)). You're qualified if you meet all the requirements of your position, such as:

  • education
  • certification or degree
  • licensing
  • experience
  • skills, and
  • other qualifications.

You must also be able to perform the essential functions of the job—the fundamental job duties for that position. But needing a reasonable accommodation to do the essential functions doesn't make you unqualified.

How the ADA Protects People with Cognitive or Mental Disabilities

If you're qualified for the job, it's unlawful for an employer to discriminate against you because of your mental or cognitive disability in any of the following ways:

  • not hiring you
  • demoting you, or
  • firing you.

Although the ADA determines disability based on how your untreated condition affects your ability to function, you don't have to stop treatment (such as medication or therapy) to be protected by the ADA. Even if your cognitive or mental condition is well controlled with treatment, you're still protected from discrimination—and entitled to a reasonable accommodation if you need one.

Getting Reasonable Accommodations for Mental Disabilities

If you have a mental or cognitive disability, your employer must make reasonable accommodations to allow you to do your work (42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A)). Reasonable accommodations include modifications that will enable you to do your job. The accommodation could include adjustments to your:

  • position
  • schedule
  • workplace rules
  • structure of the workplace, or
  • other changes to policies, procedures, or your workspace.

For example, an employee with ADHD or ADD might need to work in an office with sound-reduction barriers.

Examples of Accommodations for Cognitive or Mental Disabilities

The accommodation you need will depend on your particular disability and your work environment. Reasonable accommodations for a cognitive or mental disability could include providing things like:

  • written instructions rather than oral instructions (or vice versa)
  • removal of distractions in your workspace
  • better lighting
  • a flexible break schedule
  • a noise-canceling headset
  • additional training, or
  • more time to complete certain projects.

You might also need an accommodation to help with medication side effects. For example, if your medication makes it difficult to wake up and focus in the morning, you might ask to shift your schedule to later in the day. Or if your medication makes your mouth dry, you might need to drink water throughout your work day—even if that's usually not allowed (for example, at a cash register).

Other accommodations for mental or cognitive disabilities could include things like:

  • time off during the day to meet with a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist
  • working in an office with a door that closes, rather than a cubicle in a noisy common space, or
  • meeting with your supervisor weekly to go over your calendar and priorities.

These are only a few examples. You can find many more reasonable accommodation ideas for mental and cognitive conditions on the website of the Job Accommodation Network.

Your Right to Reasonable Accommodations at Work

If you need a reasonable accommodation at work, you must request one. Your employer isn't required to provide one for you automatically.

And your employer isn't required to provide an accommodation that creates an undue hardship on the company—significant difficulty or expense, considering the employer's size and resources.

Your employer also isn't required to provide the exact accommodation you request, but must work with you to provide an accommodation that allows you to do your job. To that end, the ADA requires your employer to participate in a "flexible, interactive dialogue" with you to come up with an effective accommodation. As part of this process, your employer can ask about your condition and how it affects you. Learn more about getting reasonable accommodations at work.

Are You Facing Discrimination for a Cognitive or Mental Disability?

Disability discrimination can take many forms. Perhaps your employer started treating you differently once you revealed your condition. Or maybe your employer denied your request for a reasonable accommodation.

In mental disability cases, some employees must deal with their employers' biases and misconceptions about psychological conditions. Some mistakenly believe stereotypes that those with mental disabilities are unstable, likely to act violently, and so on.

If you believe your employer is discriminating against you because of your mental or cognitive disability, consider talking to an employment discrimination lawyer. A lawyer can help you assess the facts and decide how to handle the situation, and might be able to help you with things like:

  • negotiating a reasonable accommodation
  • navigating your employer's internal complaint process, or
  • fighting an unfair evaluation.

If you lose your job—or your employer doesn't respond to your efforts to resolve the situation informally—a lawyer can help you file a charge with the EEOC and a lawsuit, if necessary.

Learn more about what you can do if your employer denies your accommodation request.

Updated August 17, 2023

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