ADA and Employment

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination in employment. It protects people who are applying for a job, as well as after they are hired.  Under Title I, it is unlawful for an employer to deny jobs, promotions, or other benefits based on fear or stereotypes about mental illnesses. It is also unlawful for an employer to adopt workplace rules or practices that unfairly disadvantage people with mental illnesses.

The Bazelon Center works to ensure that Title I is interpreted and enforced in a way that maximizes opportunities for employment and self-sufficiency for people with mental illnesses.

Central to Title I is its requirement that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” in the hiring process and enable employees to perform the essential functions of their job. Accommodations that may be required include: changing rules or procedures, environmental changes, a modified or part-time schedule, job restructuring, reassignment, altering policies concerning conduct or attendance, and working from home (telework).  An employer need not provide a requested accommodation if it would create an “undue hardship” for the employer, that is, would cause the employer “significant difficulty or expense.”

Accommodations should be provided when, as a result of a mental illness, an employee has difficulty conforming to a workplace rule. Employers should not punish an employee for conduct that is the result of a mental illness.

The federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) enforces Title I of the ADA, including by ensuring that complaints of employment discrimination are investigated.  In some states, complaints are investigated by state agencies under an agreement with the EEOC. A significant portion of the complaints that are filed allege discrimination based on mental illnesses.

The EEOC, or the state agency acting for the EEOC, may itself file a lawsuit against an employer. In most instances, however, it issues a “right to sue” letter after it concludes its investigation, which allows a person to go to court. If a complaint has not been investigated after a certain number of days, the person who filed it can ask for a “right to sue” letter, which allows the person to file his or her complaint in court.

For many years, employers avoided the requirements of the ADA by arguing, in essence, that a person capable of working did not have a “disability” and hence was not protected by the ADA. Congress fixed this problem through an amendment to the ADA. Under the amendment, an employer may not discriminate against a person who has a mental condition that “substantially limits” a major life activity, including working.