Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), applicants and employees with disabilities are protected from discrimination in the workplace. The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation: changes to the structure, policies, rules, or other facets of the workplace that will allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs. The ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees. (Many states have similar laws, some of which apply to smaller employers.)
The ADA covers both physical and mental disabilities. However, while physical disabilities are often obvious, and the need for an accommodation is clear, mental disabilities may not be readily apparent. If you have a mental disability, your employer may not be familiar with your condition or with the range of accommodations that might be available to assist you. Worse yet, your employer may harbor unfortunate stereotypes and biases about people with mental disabilities. This article explains how the ADA defines mental disabilities and how to approach your employer about requesting a reasonable accommodation for a mental disability.
The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity or major bodily function. Mental impairments include mental illnesses and psychological disorders, including schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and personality disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD). Intellectual disabilities (the preferred term for what used to be called mental retardation) are also included within the definition of a mental impairment.
Simply having a recognized impairment isn't enough to show that you have a disability, however. Your condition must substantially limit at least one major life activity or major bodily function. Most of the impairments listed above fulfill this requirement. Brain and neurological functions are major bodily functions that are often affected by mental impairment, as are the major life activities of thinking, sleeping, learning, and caring for oneself. And, any measures you take to control your condition (such as drugs, therapy, or other treatment) are not considered when determining whether your condition is substantially limiting. The question, from a legal perspective, is whether your condition would substantially limit a major life activity in its untreated state.
Many people choose to keep their medical conditions, including mental disabilities, private. As long as your condition isn't affecting your ability to do your job, this approach might work out just fine. Employers are not allowed to ask employees about particular medical conditions or whether they have disabilities, absent a sound business reason for doing so. In order to ask about your condition or require you to submit to a medical examination, your employer must have reason to believe, based on objective evidence, that you have a medical condition that makes you unable to perform your basic job duties or that poses a serious threat to your safety or the safety of others.
However, some employees with mental disabilities choose to reveal them at work, typically because they need a reasonable accommodation. It might be clear, when you start a job, that you will need a particular accommodation. If this is the case, you might schedule an immediate meeting with your manager to review your needs. However, it may not become clear that you will need a modification, such as a change in your schedule or in your supervisor's manner of communicating with you, until after you start work. In some cases, you might become aware that your disability is affecting your ability to work only when you are called into a disciplinary meeting or coaching session. For example, if you have bipolar disorder, you might not realize that your habit of sending lengthy emails rather than answering your supervisor's questions directly and succinctly is causing confusion. Or, if you need to take frequent breaks for meditation and breathing exercises to control an anxiety disorder, you might not realize that your absence has been noted and is creating problems.
If you need an accommodation for your disability, you must request it from your employer. Employers aren't required to guess that employees might need accommodations or make assumptions based on employee behavior and performance.
When making your request, you don't have to use any special words (such as mentioning the ADA), nor do you have to put your request in writing. However, making a written request is a good way to document your request, along with the date you made it. You should identify your disability, describe how it affects your ability to do the job, and ask for an accommodation. (See Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation for information on drafting a written request for accommodation.)
Once your employer receives your request, it has an obligation to engage in what the law calls a "flexible interactive process" – essentially, a dialogue to come up with a reasonable accommodation for your disability. Your employer isn't required to provide the precise accommodation you request, as long as it provides an effective accommodation. And, your employer need not provide an accommodation that creates undue hardship: significant expense or difficulty, given the size and resources of the employer.
If you have managed your condition for a long time, you may have a good idea of what works for you on the job and what you will need from your employer to perform your best work. For example, if you have attention deficit disorder, you may know that you need a quiet workspace, with a door and floor to ceiling walls, rather than a cubicle or desk in a noisy common area. Or, you may know that you need a couple of hours off each week to meet with your psychologist or psychiatrist for talk therapy and oversight of your medication regime.
Your health care provider may have ideas about possible workplace accommodations, as well. If your disability and need for accommodation is not obvious (as is often the case with mental disabilities), your employer has the right to request documentation of your disability and how it limits your ability to perform your work. However, even if your employer doesn't make this request, you may wish to provide information from your doctor or therapist regarding reasonable accommodations. For more information on reasonable accommodations, check out the website of the Job Accommodation Network.