ADHD at Work

Is ADHD a Disability? Your Legal Rights at Work

If ADHD symptoms make it hard for you to work, you may be legally disabled. Here, an employment attorney explains your rights in the workplace, the laws that protect you, and what accommodations might be necessary to protect you and help you succeed.

Statue of justice in front of legal books representing the legal right of people with ADHD
Statue of justice in front of legal books representing the legal right of people with ADHD

Is ADHD a Disability?

Yes. Whether you view attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (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 federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers individuals with ADHD. (Likewise, students with ADHD are protected by state and national laws guaranteeing them a free and appropriate public education.)

Adults with ADHD have certain rights that protect them in the workplace. But just what are these rights? How do you make the most of them? Here, we get legal answers from Robin Bond, a Philadelphia-based attorney, who has more than a decade of experience in employment law and who serves as an advisor to the national Attention Deficit Disorder Association.

Are Individuals with ADHD Legally Protected at Work?

For adults, the basic protection is the ADA. This federal law, enacted in 1990 and amended in 2008, forbids companies with more than 15 employees from discriminating against disabled workers and requires these companies to make accommodations for these workers.

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…”

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However, 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.

Do Employees with ADHD Have Rights if They Work for a Company with Fewer Than 15 Workers?

Possibly, many cities and states have laws that mirror the ADA and cover smaller employers and even independent contractors.

Who Decides if ADHD Is a 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 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.

Is My Employer Required to Provide Every Accommodation I Want?

Not quite. The law requires reasonable accommodations. These are things that don’t pose an undue hardship to the employer — things that aren’t outrageously expensive or burdensome to the business.

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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

What ADHD Accommodations Are Unreasonable at Work?

It depends on the situation and the size of the company. What’s reasonable to expect from a multinational corporation might cause undue hardship for a small business. Let’s say you’re not a “morning person,” and that you say to your boss, “I need to come in at 10 a.m., but I’ll work until 7 p.m.” If the office does all of its business from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., your request probably won’t fly. Given the demands of the business, it may not be reasonable. Or let’s say that the only way you can stay organized is to have your own secretary. If the company has a firm policy of one secretary for every three workers, that accommodation may also be seen as unreasonable.

Should I Tell My Employer, “I Have ADHD. You Have to Give Me Accommodations”?

It is up to the individual to reveal their ADHD. Often, you can get what you need without mentioning it. For example, you might say, “I’m really bothered by noise. I would be more effective and efficient if my office weren’t quite so close to the copier.”

However, an employee must reveal their ADHD to be covered by the ADA. 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.

Also, an 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.

What if My Boss Refuses to Provide ADHD Accommodations?

Consider hiring a coach to keep your work on track. And ask the boss again a few weeks later. If that isn’t practical or successful, talk with the company’s HR department. If that is not helpful and you want to take further action to ensure you receive accommodations, you can bring a claim before the appropriate agency.

If the employee’s claim is against a private employer with 15 or more employees, 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 request, and then you 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, you can bring the 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, contact any EEOC field office, located in cities throughout the United States. To contact the EEOC, call (800) 669-4000 for more information.

Note: Many states and cities have prohibitions against employment disability discrimination and claims can be filed with either a city or state agency.

Should I Document the Whole Story?

That’s a good idea. Carry a notebook, and, when difficulties start, take notes: “The boss said I’d better not come late to the next meeting,” or “Jack made fun of my difficulty finding papers.” One thing you don’t want to do is enter your notes on a company computer — or leave them in your office.

Is the Next Step “See You in Court”?

That’s the last step. Negotiation is better than litigation and far less costly. The first thing is to sit down with your employer and try to work things out. Thus far, there have been only about a dozen cases in which an employee with ADHD sued his employer — and not one of these suits has been successful for the employee. Of course, the mere threat of legal action may be all that’s needed to get an employer to take your situation seriously. No employer wants to be the test case that leads to the first big ADHD employee victory!

Is ADHD a Disability? Next Steps

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5 Comments & Reviews

  1. can anyone please help me? I am having difficulty at work. I work in the medical field as support to anesthesia providers. the operating room suit I work in is full of big egos from the providers. I have been spoke to by the supervisor regarding complaints from people who say I have an attitude over the phone. I tried to explain that its not attitude, and that I have some medical issues the have an impact on me, adhd, hearing loss from my days as a soldier, and a really private medical condition. the long and short of it is that now after 2.5 years there they tell me they need documentation so they have a record of my medical challenges. Now I am not ok with this. How does giving medical notes from my providers improve the situations of people passing judgment on me or how they interpret me when I am in hyper mode due to getting over whelmed? Do I by law have to provide this, can they deny me support service with out this. Keep in mind that this is from the supervisor not H R. Please anyone help me.

    1. From the EEOC:

      “May an employer ask an individual for documentation when the individual requests reasonable accommodation?

      Yes. When the disability and/or the need for accommodation is not obvious, the employer may ask the individual for reasonable documentation about his/her disability and functional limitations. The employer is entitled to know that the individual has a covered disability for which s/he needs a reasonable accommodation.

      Reasonable documentation means that the employer may require only the documentation that is needed to establish that a person has an ADA disability, and that the disability necessitates a reasonable accommodation. Thus, an employer, in response to a request for reasonable accommodation, cannot ask for documentation that is unrelated to determining the existence of a disability and the necessity for an accommodation. This means that in most situations an employer cannot request a person’s complete medical records because they are likely to contain information unrelated to the disability at issue and the need for accommodation. If an individual has more than one disability, an employer can request information pertaining only to the disability that requires a reasonable accommodation.

      An employer may require that the documentation about the disability and the functional limitations come from an appropriate health care or rehabilitation professional. The appropriate professional in any particular situation will depend on the disability and the type of functional limitation it imposes. Appropriate professionals include, but are not limited to, doctors (including psychiatrists), psychologists, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, vocational rehabilitation specialists, and licensed mental health professionals.

      In requesting documentation, employers should specify what types of information they are seeking regarding the disability, its functional limitations, and the need for reasonable accommodation. The individual can be asked to sign a limited release allowing the employer to submit a list of specific questions to the health care or vocational professional.

      As an alternative to requesting documentation, an employer may simply discuss with the person the nature of his/her disability and functional limitations. It would be useful for the employer to make clear to the individual why it is requesting information, i.e., to verify the existence of an ADA disability and the need for a reasonable accommodation.

      Example A: An employee says to an employer, “I’m having trouble reaching tools because of my shoulder injury.” The employer may ask the employee for documentation describing the impairment; the nature, severity, and duration of the impairment; the activity or activities that the impairment limits; and the extent to which the impairment limits the employee’s ability to perform the activity or activities (i.e., the employer is seeking information as to whether the employee has an ADA disability).

      Example B: A marketing employee has a severe learning disability. He attends numerous meetings to plan marketing strategies. In order to remember what is discussed at these meetings he must take detailed notes but, due to his disability, he has great difficulty writing. The employee tells his supervisor about his disability and requests a laptop computer to use in the meetings. Since neither the disability nor the need for accommodation are obvious, the supervisor may ask the employee for reasonable documentation about his impairment; the nature, severity, and duration of the impairment; the activity or activities that the impairment limits; and the extent to which the impairment limits the employee’s ability to perform the activity or activities. The employer also may ask why the disability necessitates use of a laptop computer (or any other type of reasonable accommodation, such as a tape recorder) to help the employee retain the information from the meetings.

      Example C: An employee’s spouse phones the employee’s supervisor on Monday morning to inform her that the employee had a medical emergency due to multiple sclerosis, needed to be hospitalized, and thus requires time off. The supervisor can ask the spouse to send in documentation from the employee’s treating physician that confirms that the hospitalization was related to the multiple sclerosis and provides information on how long an absence may be required from work.

      If an individual’s disability or need for reasonable accommodation is not obvious, and s/he refuses to provide the reasonable documentation requested by the employer, then s/he is not entitled to reasonable accommodation. On the other hand, failure by the employer to initiate or participate in an informal dialogue with the individual after receiving a request for reasonable accommodation could result in liability for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.”

  2. From aa271828

    I have ADHD, and it’s severe, I’ve had problems all my life & its costed me dearly.
    I forget things all the time, I’ll give you an example. I installed a new water pump in my car
    and I for got to refill the radiator, I drove off to college (77 miles away) after a number of miles
    the engine was destroyed, and being a college student, I couldn’t begin to afford to have it fixed.
    And this was a few days after my mom was killed in a road accident.

    There have been many times I’ve had to pay locksmiths to unlock my car, because I left my
    keys in. when driving, I’m constantly missing my turns, very frustrating.

    When is was a child, I’ve has terrible learning problems in school, I was given tranquilizers, then
    I got in trouble for sleeping in class, whereas before I would get in trouble for hyperactivity, couldn’t win.
    It seems in collage, with hard work, I used hyper-focusing to get me through.

    Also, I have problems saying things first without thinking, through the years this wasn’t a big problem,but with the increased sensitivity to political correctness, it now has for me.
    Although, I have been careful the past few years at work.

    The worst indecent so far recently was at work. I worked for a large defense contractor (20years) i’m an engineer.

    I was on an a assignment in a closed room in a cube with some of my co-workers (also friends)
    and I would once in a while say funny things to them as situations come up, unknown to us, there
    was a supervisor in the next cube listening in on our conversations, so he didn’t like some of the things
    I said (which weren’t bad) & he looked me up, then turned me in to the HR department. He never came over to my cube to talk to me about it, a mater of fact, I never meet him. So, after an HR investigation, I was called in to the security area, and after signing my security debriefing forms, I was escorted out to my car. I was FIRED. I realized I just lost everything.

    I wouldn’t wish ADHD on anyone, it is a terrible condition & curse to have.

  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 scurrying 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 and WILL be used against you ….. ”

    I have been 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 and a disaster 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 people 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 your 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.

    If you need help, get help but don’t be reckless, don’t be stupid. STFU about your ADD/ADHD mental defect that somehow escaped the quality control process before you slid into this world.

    Read ADDitude for its honest heartfelt advice but ignore all recommendations to out yourself and publicly reveal your condition. I wish you the best. Peace be with you.

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