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Americans with Disabilities Act and mental illness

What laws protect people with disabilities?

Learn more in the illnesses and disabilities section of womenshealth.gov:

There are a number of federal laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities, including mental health illnesses. The main one is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law prohibits discrimination in four main areas:

  • Your job – The ADA makes it against the law to discriminate against someone with a disability at work. The law also says that employers make "reasonable accommodations" for qualified people with a disability.
  • State and local government services and public transportation – The ADA requires that all government services be made available and accessible to people with disabilities. These services include public transportation systems.
  • Public accommodations – The ADA requires that all public buildings be accessible to people with disabilities. Examples include widening aisles and doorways and installing ramps for people in wheelchairs. Another example is putting up signs in Braille for people who are blind.
  • Telecommunications –The ADA requires that telephone companies provide telephone relay services to people with hearing and/or speech impairments.
Other laws that protect people with disabilities include:
  • Fair Housing Act – This law makes it illegal to deny housing to a renter or buyer because of a disability. Owners must also make reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities. For instance, a blind person should be allowed to keep a Seeing Eye dog, even if the owner does not allow animals on the property.
  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – This law requires that a free public education be made available to children and youth with disabilities. It also requires that the education be designed to meet their unique educational needs.
  • The Rehabilitation Act – The purpose of this law is to help people with disabilities become employed and independent. Among other things, the law established Centers for Independent Living.

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Does the ADA protect people with severe mental illness?

The definition of disability in the ADA includes people with mental illness who meet one of these three definitions:

  1.  A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual
  2.  A record of such an impairment
  3.  Being regarded as having such an impairment

A mental impairment is defined by the ADA as "any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities."

Some things to remember:

  • Your employer has to make reasonable accommodation only if they know about your mental illness.
  • Employers do not have to accommodate disabilities that they don't know about.
  • If an employee with a known disability is having a hard time doing his or her job, an employer may ask whether the employee is in need of a reasonable accommodation. 
  • Also, if the employer has reason to know that the employee has a disability, they may have an obligation to discuss reasonable accommodation. Mostly, however, it is up to the person with the disability to tell the employer that an accommodation is needed.
  • An employer cannot ask questions about your medical or psychiatric history during an interview.
  • An employer can ask you objective questions that help the employer decide whether you can perform essential duties of a job. An employer may ask you about your ability to meet the physical standards for jobs involving physical labor, your ability to get along with people, or your ability to finish tasks on time and to come to work every day.

Examples of reasonable accommodations for people with severe mental illnesses are:

  • Providing self-paced workloads and flexible hours
  • Modifying job responsibilities
  • Allowing leave (paid or unpaid) during periods of hospitalization or incapacity
  • Assigning a supportive and understanding supervisor
  • Modifying work hours to allow people to attend appointments with their psychiatrist
  • Providing easy access to supervision and supports in the workplace
  • Providing frequent guidance and feedback about job performance

What do I do if I believe I have experienced employment discrimination?

Any person who believes that he or she has experienced employment discrimination based on a psychiatric disability has a right to file an administrative "charge" or "complaint" with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a state or local anti-discrimination agency. Such individuals also may file a lawsuit in court, but only after filing an administrative charge. You may also find it useful to contact:

  • U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
    1801 L Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20507
    Phone: 202-663-4900
    Website: www.eeoc.gov
  • U.S. Department of Justice
    Disability Rights Section
    950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
    Civil Rights Division
    Disability Rights Section - NYAVE
    Washington, DC 20530
    Phone: 800-514-0301
    TDD: 800-514-0383
    Website: http://www.justice.gov/

Content last updated: March 29, 2010.

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