Diversity & Inclusion

A Legal Guide to Navigating Mental Health Disabilities and Ableism at Work

More than 15 percent of all working-age adults live with a mental health condition. Mental health conditions are medical conditions which involve “changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these)” and “can be associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” Mental health conditions are prevalent in the U.S., where more than one in five adults live with some form of mental illness. Mental health conditions are also more prevalent among women and young adults.

Even though mental health conditions are common, workers can still face barriers in the workplace because of their mental health status. These hurdles often stem from ableism, which is a bias or prejudice against people with disabilities. You can combat ableism in your workplace by 1) learning to recognize ableism, 2) understanding the laws that protect workers with disabilities, and 3) asking for reasonable accommodations when you need them. Below is an overview of ableism in the workplace, a review of the relevant laws, and a guide to help workers with qualifying mental health conditions secure reasonable accommodations at work.

What Is Ableism?

Ableism is prejudice, bias, and discrimination against people with disabilities. Structural ableism is a system of policies, institutions, societal norms, and practices that privilege able-bodied and able-minded people over people with disabilities. Ableism includes the belief that people without disabilities can determine what disabled people need and whether an environment is ableist. Ableism toward people with mental health conditions often includes the failure to acknowledge that mental health conditions are disabilities.

Ableism shows up in the employment context because disabilities can impact how people work and their ability to be productive. In the workplace, ableism toward people with mental health conditions can look like:

  • The use of words like “crazy,” “insane,” or “psycho” to describe atypical events.
  • The expectation that employees should work quickly or outside of official work hours to complete assignments.
  • The reliance on employees to request an accommodation instead of making sure organization-wide policies account for varying levels of ability.
  • The requirement that employees prove they are ill (by physically appearing ill or through a note from a medical provider) to receive benefits for sickness.
  • Assuming a worker is faking an illness or condition because they don’t “seem” sick.

Unfortunately, the law does not protect employees from all forms of ableism. However, there are laws that protect workers with qualifying conditions from unlawful discrimination.

How the Law Protects You

Both federal and state statutes protect workers (including applicants) with disabilities from employment discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act make it illegal for employers to discriminate against qualified workers with disabilities when taking any action that impacts the terms, conditions, or privileges of their employment. The ADA and Rehab Act also require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified workers with disabilities. The ADA governs state and local governments and private sector employers with 15 or more employees. The Rehabilitation Act protects federal workers. Most states also have local laws, like the D.C. Human Rights Act, that protect qualified workers with disabilities from employment discrimination and provide rights to reasonable accommodations.

For a mental health condition to qualify as a disability under these laws, it must substantially limit one or more major life activity (like caring for yourself, sleeping, speaking, or concentrating) or major bodily functions (like immune, digestive, or neurological functions) without considering mitigating measures. This means your condition may qualify as a disability even if you receive treatments, like therapy or medication, that lessen your symptoms. Common legally recognized mental health disabilities can include, but are not limited to:

  • major depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • anxiety disorders
  • schizophrenia
  • personality disorders

How To Obtain a Reasonable Accommodation for Your Mental Health Condition

If you have a qualifying mental health condition, one of the best ways to protect yourself against ableism in the workplace is to request a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job or work environment that allows people with disabilities to perform the essential functions of their position. Reasonable accommodations to an employer’s hiring process can also give applicants equal opportunity to compete for a job. Common reasonable accommodations for mental health conditions include private or quiet workspaces, the ability to work from home, and flexible work hours.

Both employers and employees have legal responsibilities when it comes to the reasonable accommodation process. Below are the main actions the law requires you and your employer to take:

Your Responsibilities Under the Law

  • Tell your employer about your disability. Often, mental health conditions are not easily observed. This means you will probably need to tell your employer about your condition and provide medical documentation to establish that your condition qualifies as a disability under the law. The documentation should be from a licensed medical provider and only needs to provide enough information to show that you have a disability and how you need to be accommodated. Check your employer’s policies to identify the right person (such as a reasonable accommodation coordinator) to contact regarding this sensitive information. If you are concerned about your privacy, talk to your employer about their policies for safeguarding your medical information. You can also consult with an employment lawyer about your rights.
  • Request accommodations. You can request a reasonable accommodation at any time, regardless of how long you have been working for your employer, including when applying and interviewing for a position or after several years on the job. However, you must ask the employer for a reasonable accommodation if you need one, and you should do so even if they are aware of your disability. You should also identify the accommodation you need unless it is obvious. It is a good idea to document your request in writing, but accommodation requests aren’t legally required to be formal or documented. You also do not have to use specific phrases like “disability” or “reasonable accommodation.”
  • Meet the qualifications of the position. You must meet all qualifications for the position, including education and experience requirements. You must also be able to perform all of the essential functions of the position, even if you need an accommodation to do so.

Shared Responsibilities Under the Law

  • Engage in the interactive process. Once you disclose your disability and request an accommodation, your employer must work with you to find an effective solution that reasonably accommodates your disability. You must also work with your employer in this “interactive process,” which includes having good faith conversations about potential alternative accommodations. It is important to keep records of these conversations. If you speak with your employer about your accommodation request, try to follow up with an email that summarizes what you discussed.

Your Employer’s Responsibilities Under the Law

  • Provide an accommodation that doesn’t pose an undue hardship. Your employer must ultimately provide an effective reasonable accommodation as long as it would not be an undue hardship. If you request a specific accommodation, they should consider your request. However, they don’t have to provide the accommodation you want if another, less burdensome, option would be just as effective.
  • Keep your medical information confidential: Your employer must keep your medical information confidential and stored in a file separate from your personnel file. They may only disclose your medical information in limited situations to limited individuals on a need-to-know basis, including supervisors who need to know about your accommodations, medical or safety personnel if you need emergency treatment, and government officials investigating laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability.

The Bottom Line

Navigating the workplace with a mental health condition can be difficult. While the law doesn’t address all types of ableism, it prohibits discrimination and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations that can help to level the playing field.

Danielle Parker with Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch.

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