ADHD at Work

Your Rights to ADHD Accommodations at Work

You have a right to ADHD accommodations at work and protections from discrimination, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Here, learn what the ADA disability list says about ADHD, and what legal protections exist for adults with attention deficit.

United States Capitol Building, Washington, DC, a symbol for the Americans with Disabilities Act
United States Capitol Building, Washington, DC, a symbol for the Americans with Disabilities Act

Though our work lives have shifted dramatically since 2020, one thing hasn’t changed: the workplace protections for individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) stipulated in federal, state, and local laws.

The most important legal protection for workers with ADHD is the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. The original version of the ADA was passed by Congress in 1990 and was amended in 2008 to expand and clarify its application.

What is the ADA?

The ADA is essentially a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.” The law goes on to state that “major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, bending, speaking, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”

There is also a separate section of the ADA that further discusses what is included in the definition of disability under the law by listing the bodily systems that are affected, which include: “neurological [and] brain systems…”

Is ADHD covered by the ADA?

Yes. Whether you view ADHD as neurological — affecting how the brain concentrates or thinks — or consider ADHD as a disability that impacts working, there is no question that the ADA covers individuals with ADHD.

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Courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, initially applied the ADA quite narrowly. This was not what Congress had intended when it first passed the law, so it amended the ADA to clarify that it should be broadly applied and to change the “legal environment in which individuals must demonstrate an inappropriately high degree of functional limitation in order to be protected from discrimination under the ADA.”

The 2008 ADA Amendments ACT – the ADAAA – now provides the following:

  • The ADA should be interpreted broadly, in favor of providing protections to individuals.
  • Someone can be disabled in one major life activity without being disabled in all activities. So, someone can have difficulty with work tasks and qualify for ADA protection, even if they can handle tasks at home.
  • The use of mitigating measures – medications, mobility devices, hearing aids, cochlear implants, and prosthetics — do not disqualify someone for protection under the ADA. But ordinary glasses and contact lenses are not covered by this section.
  • Other measures, including assistive technology, reasonable accommodations, services such as a sign language interpreter, or learned behavioral or adaptive modifications also don’t disqualify someone for ADA protections.
  • Individuals with episodic conditions, such as epilepsy, diabetes, or multiple sclerosis are protected if their impairments are considered disabling in their “active” state.

Do ADA protections apply to all workers with ADHD?

To be covered by the ADA, an individual with ADHD must work in a setting that employs more than 15 people. However, many cities and states have laws that mirror the ADA and cover smaller employers and even independent contractors.

As an aside, the ADA does not apply to members of the armed forces. For employees of the executive branch of the federal government, federal contractors, and employees of programs receiving federal funds, the ADA does not apply. Instead, employees are protected by The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is very similar to the ADA and was the law upon which the ADA was originally based.

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What are the employee’s obligations and considerations?

First, the employee must be qualified for his job. Just because he has a disability does not mean he is protected from being fired – or not hired in the first place. He is obligated to meet the legitimate skill, experience, education, or other job requirements and be able to perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation. Requiring the ability to perform “essential” functions assures that he will not be considered unqualified simply because of his inability to perform marginal or incidental job functions.

What is essential to a job will differ from workplace to workplace and position to position. Getting to work on time is a crucial part of some jobs, like teaching. (Who will cover a teacher’s class if the teacher is late?) But if an individual worked in a design firm where people came and went from the office or even worked from home, getting to the office at a particular time might be far less important. Some fields, like medicine or quality control in a factory, are unforgiving of mistakes due to inattention. Others will be less so. Employees will do best if they understand how ADHD affects their work and choose a field and a workplace that values their strengths and not their challenges.

Finally, employees must consider whether or when to disclose the fact that they have ADHD. Unlike an individual who uses a wheelchair or has another “visible” disability, someone with ADHD may decide not to disclose this information. If they choose not to disclose their diagnosis, the employee cannot expect his employer to provide ADHD accommodations.

Must an employee reveal their ADHD to be covered by ADA?

Yes. Several courts have already ruled that, in these situations, lack of knowledge of the condition or of how the disability may affect the employee may be used as a legitimate defense for the employer.

Can an employer or potential employer ask whether I have ADHD?

No. Your employer or potential employer cannot ask questions about your medical or psychiatric history. The only exception is if an applicant asks for reasonable accommodation for the hiring process. If the need for this accommodation is not obvious, an employer may ask an applicant for reasonable documentation about the covered disability.

Most often a note from a doctor confirming an ADHD diagnosis and, ideally, noting the kinds of accommodations needed to “level the playing field” at work will meet this requirement.

Note that the employer is not entitled to request the employee’s full medical records, just what is needed to verify a diagnosis of ADHD and the need to accommodate it. Not all employers seek this formal confirmation of disability; many simply discuss with an employee the nature of their disability and the limitations they face as a result. This informal conversation would include a discussion of reasonable and effective accommodations.

When should an employee disclose their ADHD?

There is no specific stage in the employment process when ADHD disclosure is required. An employee does not lose the right to request accommodations by not disclosing during the hiring process or at any point during employment. However, if an employee does not disclose and fails to meet job expectations because of the condition (since the employee would be working without accommodations), that employee will not have recourse if penalized or fired because of such failure.

What are reasonable accommodations?

An employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified applicant or employee with a disability. Let’s assume that an employee has disclosed her ADHD to her employer and provided medical documentation or discussed with HR or management how ADHD affects her in the workplace. What kinds of accommodations might she seek and might her employer provide? Note that the employer is not required to provide accommodations that are unreasonable – or that may incur substantial costs or be disruptive to the business.

What is reasonable will differ from job to job, but some of the most common “reasonable” accommodations for ADHD include the following:

• Providing a quiet workspace
• Allowing noise-canceling headphones or white noise
• Working from home some or all of the time
• Taking allotted breaks as needed
• Minimizing marginal functions to allow focus on essential job duties
• Allowing assistive technology (timers, apps, calendars, etc.)
• Adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials, or policies
• Reassignment to a vacant position
• Job restructuring

Can an employer dock my pay or reduce my salary because I require reasonable accommodation?

No. An employer cannot make up the cost of providing a reasonable accommodation by lowering your salary or paying you less than other employees in similar positions.

Do I qualify for accommodations if I take ADHD medication?

Yes. In addition, some other protections afforded by the ADA include accommodating side effects from medication taken to treat a disability. If an employee were trying a new ADHD medication that induced lethargy or tics, he would be entitled to accommodations from his employer – perhaps a few days of working from home or a quiet room where he could lie down when he needed a break — to enable him to deal with the effects of his medication. Remember, he still needs to be able to perform the essential aspects of his job and will have to disclose to his employer that he is having side effects from medication.

What should I do if I think I’m being discriminated against?

What can an employee do if she believes her employer is violating its obligations under the ADA or its local equivalent? What remedies does she have? She should certainly begin by discussing the issue with her supervisor and, if that isn’t practical or successful, with the company HR department. If that is not helpful and she wants to take further action to ensure she receives the accommodations to which she is entitled, she can bring a claim before the appropriate agency.

If the employee’s claim is against a private employer with 15 or more employees, she should contact the federal U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If the EEOC dismisses the complaint or fails to take action within 180 days, the EEOC will issue the employee a “right to sue” letter, upon her request, and then the employee may file a lawsuit within 90 days of the date of the notice.

If an employee is making a claim against a public entity, such as an arm of a state or local government, she can bring her complaint to the EEOC or the U.S. Department of Justice, which shares enforcement in these situations.

An employee may have up to 300 days to file a charge if there is a state or local law that provides relief for discrimination on the basis of disability. However, to protect the employee’s rights, it is best to contact EEOC promptly if discrimination is suspected.

To file a charge of discrimination on the basis of disability, an employee may contact any EEOC field office, located in cities throughout the United States. To contact the EEOC, look in your telephone directory under “U.S. Government.” You can also call (800) 669-4000 for more information.

Remember, many states and cities have prohibitions against employment disability discrimination and claims can be filed with either a city or state agency.

ADHD Accommodations at Work: Next Steps


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4 Comments & Reviews

  1. In 2007, at age 47, I was diagnosed with ADD. I had abandoned pursuit of a college degree 25 years before, thinking I was lazy and unfocused. Of course those of you who have a late diagnosis know what happens to your psyche once you have been diagnosed and a treatment regimen is successful. After a year of seeing how the treatment affected my work and other endeavors, i decided to return to college.

    I successfully applied for re-entry to Rutgers University Newark campus. This was the Spring 2009 semester. In the Fall 2009 semester, I sought accommodations. I was not, nor am I now clear on what accommodations I am entitled to with my diagnoses (I was further diagnosed with depression in 2009). I signed all clearances and releases. I got my medical records and submitted them. I submitted to the required intake interview. I even entered into counseling with the campus counseling center.

    The counseling turned out to be totally inappropriate for me. It was psychotherapy. He asked questions about my childhood, my growing up, my marriage. This was the predominance of my sessions. I felt like every weekly session was designed to disrobe and send me out feeling naked and exposed. At one point my counselor told me that he was trying to figure out what my problem was. He said that I seemed like a nice guy. Why could i not just get it together and do what I needed to do to accomplish my goal of graduation and teacher certification? You see, despite my faithful application to my medical regime, the rigors of the academic pursuit exposed how I was still subject to the symptoms of ADD and depression. They were yet disaffecting my academic performance.

    Every semester I asked about my application for accommodations. I asked the intake counselor. He said that it was with the counseling center. I asked the counseling center. They told me that it was in the office of the dean that was supposed to handle accommodations. I called her office. They had no record of me. I went back to the counseling center, they said it was with the dean.

    This went on until May 2013, when I barely graduated with a 2.5 GPA. In New Jersey, the minimum GPA for teacher certification is 2.75, and that GPA requires a substantially higher score on the subject matter PRAXIS exam. I never got the accommodations. I still do not know, have never been officially briefed on what accommodations could have helped me as I struggled through, not intellectually, but psychologically. I would be late for class. I would get demerits for this. Eventually the futility set in and I would not even try. I always felt embarrassed. Once again I felt like I was lazy and unfocused. I eventually did get competent counseling, but it was too late. The damage had been done, and Rutgers still had not authorized accommodations. I would tell professors about my situation. Some were sympathetic. Some were not. They all wanted me to get official documentation from the accommodations office, which despite my cooperation and being reassured that there was nothing else for me to do, was not forthcoming.

    I then successfully applied to a graduate program at Rutgers. This only lasted three semesters, at which time I was asked to leave the program, because the same symptoms were happening. At times I would try too hard and that would be my destruction. All in all, I have $150,000 in school debt and no way to pay for it. I cannot become a substitute teacher, because the last semester at Rutgers was unfunded, because I was taking only undergrad courses. I did not realize that these classes would not improve my undergrad GPA. This last semester was when I finally got an ostensible response from a letter to the University president who expressed shock and promised to address my situation. That turned out to be merely a game of CYA. When I realized all of this, I withdrew. Although I informed the dean who the president directed to work with me, I was yet considered as officially withdrawing too late and thus liable for the semester tuition. This resulted in a financial hold on my transcripts. So much for at least gaining classroom experience, building rapport and demonstrating my competence by serving as a substitute teacher.

    I filed a complaint in 2011 with the state and in 2015 with the federal government. The state never officially responded. The U.S. Department of Education officially denied my complaint citing untimeliness and failure to follow through with the Rutgers process. I told the investigator that I had. She was apparently told that I had not. I learned eventually that my file was found in the counseling center. They had never forwarded it to the dean that handled accommodations.

    I am pressing on. I drive for Lyft. I am working to get my photographic artwork on exhibit and sold. I am working on recording and producing a CD of my many music compositions. I am also working on getting a Commercial Driver License. I have a real estate instructor license. Once I clear the CDL, and especially if I get a job, I will next seek to get a continuing education course approved by the real estate commission. I already have the continuing education endorsement on my instructor license. I have concluded that I need to avoid as best I can any employment that requires a rigid schedule and involves mindless repetition.

    I don’t know what to do. My life, and i do not say this with utter hopelessness, is ruined. I am worse off now than I was in 2009. I had $0 debt of any kind, save a tax debt due to my real estate sales success that has since been extinguished. Now I have $150,000 in debt. Everybody I talk to says that Rutgers’ refusal to provide accommodations was illegal discrimination. Yet, no one in authority to do so has helped me. I used to really believe in the system, that I was protected from this sort of thing. New Jersey has the most comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in the country, save California. In my real estate pre-licensing courses, I would emphatically urge pre-licensees to take this very seriously, because I do know how at least fair housing cases have been addressed. Now I believe it is all window dressing and that if you are not of the most favored current protected group you are, well, not protected. It is Animal Farm all over again. All protected classes are equal. ..but some are more equal than others.

    Is anyone willing to help me?

  2. @eulippia
    This is relatable for me. It took me 6 years to complete my undergrad. It’s a miracle I made it through. I struggled with ADHD and PTSD and furthermore, I wasn’t diagnosed with the ADHD until my last year at university. I struggled with frequent mental break downs and low self esteem. I changed my major 3 times before I landed with psychology; go figure.
    Since graduating I have jumped from job to job, never able to be consistent. You know what they say, we are good at being consistently inconsistent. I always say in return, at least I’m consistent with something. I have been a camp counselor, a barista at Starbucks, a Lyft driver, security at venues, and a corrections officer.
    The most recent job as a corrections officer was the most ambitious thing I ever attempted. I finally got sick of not having reliable income and decided to put my degree to use. The stress and rigid structure of that job changed me and it wasn’t for the better. I lasted 6 months. When I began working there, I was prescribed vyvanse. It helped me get the job but after a while I felt that it wasn’t helping anymore. I decided to get off of medication. I was fine for a few months but eventually I started to struggle with being late again, not paying attention to detail, not multitasking, getting upset over seemingly trivial things, etc. One day my boss pulled me into the office for a supervision (not a good thing). He sat there telling me everything that I wasn’t doing well enough, laying into me about my performance. Meanwhile, I’m still surprised I even made it far enough to get the job, let alone made it through all the training and effectively did the job for months. It was discouraging to hear from someone else that even after all that, I still wasn’t good enough. Sound familiar? So I broke down and told him I have ADHD and I had been on medication up until recently and began to struggle with certain things. Guess what happened? A few weeks letter I was fired and coerced into signing my termination letter with the state.
    Fortunately I didn’t waste anymore time with a workplace like that. Unfortunately I’m barely scraping by financially again. Driving for Lyft and working security at venues doesn’t cut it. I’m thankful I’m not thousands of dollars in debt. I was lucky enough to have a dad that paid for my college and has always pushed me to succeed. He also has ADHD and is a doctor, which has inspired me to keep pushing. I find that I do much better when I’m working for myself and setting my own standards for success. At the end of the day, happiness is the most important thing. Define your own success. Don’t force yourself to be like the rest of the world because we aren’t like the rest of the world. Keep up with your photography and doing things that are creative. That’s where we shine.

  3. I think that outing yourself, especially to your employer, is terrible advice. Your boss is not your friend! By definition a boss is someone who dangles a sword of Damocles over your career. If you are stupid enough to admit that you have ADHD, that will send the HR director to the internet and he will discover that the ‘H’ stands for hyperactivity and assume the worst, that you will squirm and fidget in a critical customer facing meeting. The next round of layoffs you will get whacked and you’ll never find out the truth why.

    Even criminal suspects don’t spill their guts unless they are stupid. Your Miranda rights apply in a work scenario too: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can [WILL] be used against you ….. ”

    If you need help, get help but don’t sign the death warrant on your own career. STFU about your ADD/ADHD mental defect that somehow escaped the quality control process before you slid into this world.

  4. I want to add to my post immediately above. The other real life comments to this essay are heartbreaking. I was more fortunate than many. I doggedly pursued a STEM education and graduated from engineering school with a 2.5 GPA and it took me 4 1/2 years, a process that normal people do in 4 years. I earned it DESPITE having this ADD $#1+, not because of it. My ADD has ALWAYS been a handicap in both social and workplace settings.

    Don’t insult my intelligence about what a “gift” ADD or ADHD is! This is no ****ing gift! Most of the peopIe who espouse this fake news have never worked outside of academia. So listen to me, listen to me! My 40+ year career was always with for-profit corporations. The guys who run these companies are hard-ass dudes. They do not tolerate incompetence, mistakes, missed deadlines or any mealy-mouth excuses about mental illness.

    Oh, but you’ll file a claim with my state’s Fair Employment and Labor Commission! Go ahead, but haven’t you heard? Since at least 2017 this is the era of minimalist government. The consumer affairs agencies and fair employment commissions have had their budgets slashed and case workers sent to the unemployment lines. If you file a complaint today you’ll be lucky to receive a call back two years from now. In the meantime you try to exist on a meager unemployment check that runs out next month. God help anyone in this situation.

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