How Employees or Job Applicants With Mental Disabilities Are Protected by the ADA

The ADA protects employees and job applicants with mental impairments from job discrimation and requires reasonable accommodations.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees and job applicants with mental (and physical) disabilities from discrimination. Mental disabilities can includes cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and psychological difficulties (more on this below). The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to allow qualified employees with mental disabilities to do their jobs.

In this article we describe how the ADA defines a mental disability, reasonable accommodations for employees with mental disabilities, and what to do if you believe your employer is discriminating against you because of a mental disability.

What Mental Conditions Count as Disabilities Under the ADA?

The ADA defines a mental disability as a mental impairment that would, if not treated, substantially limit at least one major life activity, such as concentrating, thinking, caring for oneself, interacting with others, working, sleeping, communicating, and so on. You don’t have to be completely unable to do these activities to be protected; you are considered “substantially limited” if it is more difficult, takes more time, is more uncomfortable, is painful, or is otherwise harder for you to perform these activities than it is for most people who don’t have your condition.

Rather than listing conditions that are always considered disabling, the ADA looks at how a particular condition affects a particular person. Nonetheless, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal government agency that enforces and interprets the ADA, has said that mental conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, and personality disorders (such as antisocial or borderline personality disorder) should easily qualify as disabilities, along with many others. Anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder, intellectual disability (low IQ), learning disabilities, neurocognitive disorders caused by dementia or brain damage, and other mental conditions may also qualify under the ADA, depending on how they affect you if untreated.

The EEOC's guidance also says that traits such as irritability, chronic lateness, and poor judgment are not in themselves mental disabilities. Alcohol and drug addiction do not count as mental disabilities under the ADA either.

The ADA talks about disabilities in their untreated condition, but this doesn’t mean that you have to stop treatment (such as medication or therapy) to be protected by the ADA. Even if your condition is well controlled with treatment, you are still protected from discrimination—and entitled to a reasonable accommodation, if you need one.

Who Is Eligible for Protection Under the ADA?

The ADA covers all private employers with at least 15 employees; if you work for a smaller employer, you may be protected by your state’s disability discrimination law.

The ADA protects only "qualified" people with mental disabilities from discrimination. You are qualified if you meet all of the requirements of your position, such as education, degree, licensing, experience, skills, and so on. You must also be able to perform the essential functions of the job—the fundamental job duties for that position. If you need a reasonable accommodation to do the essential functions, it doesn’t make you unqualified; as explained below, employers must make reasonable accommodations for their employees with disabilities who need modifications or assistance to do their jobs.

Reasonable Accommodations for Mental Disabilities

If you have a mental disability, your employer must make reasonable accommodations to allow you to do your job. A reasonable accommodation can be a modification to the position, schedule, workplace rules, structure of the workplace, and so on, that will allow you to do your job. Here are some examples:

  • If you take medication that makes it difficult to wake up and focus in the morning, you might ask to start and end your work shift later in the day.
  • If you take medication that makes your mouth dry, you might need permission to drink throughout your work day, even if that is usually not allowed (for example, at a cash register).
  • If you need to meet with a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist, you might need time off during the day.
  • If you have difficulty concentrating, you may need a work space with walls that go all the way to the ceiling and a door that closes, rather than a cubicle in a noisy common space.
  • If you have difficulty remembering detailed oral instructions, you might need to receive work assignments by email.
  • If it’s hard for you to juggle multiple job duties, you might need to meet 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 a variety of mental conditions at the website of the Job Accommodation Network.

If you need a reasonable accommodation, you must request one. Then, your employer must participate in a “flexible, interactive dialogue” with you in order to come up with an accommodation that will be effective for you. Your employer isn’t required to provide the exact accommodation you request, but it must work with you to provide an accommodation that allows you to do your job. As part of this process, your employer is entitled to ask about your condition and how it affects you. Your employer isn’t required to provide an accommodation that creates undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, considering the employer’s size, resources, and so on.

If You Are Facing Discrimination

If you believe your employer is discriminating against you because of your mental disability, you should talk to a lawyer right away. Discrimination might take many forms. Perhaps your employer started treating you differently once you revealed your condition. Maybe your employer denied your request for a reasonable accommodation. In mental disability cases, some employees have to deal with their employers’ biases and misconceptions about psychological conditions, such as stereotypes that those with mental disabilities are unstable, likely to act violently, and so on.

Consulting with a lawyer will help you assess the facts and decide how to handle the situation. A lawyer may be able to help you negotiate a reasonable accommodation, navigate your employer’s internal complaint process, or fight 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 of discrimination with the EEOC or your state’s fair employment practices agency, which is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit.

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