Bipolar Disorder and Work - Understanding the ADA

Your Ability to Work with Bipolar Disorder is Protected by the ADA

When you have bipolar disorder, you may wonder how it will affect your job and how you are treated in the workplace. Will you still be able to work, and will you still be considered for a new job? Bipolar disorder is one of the many conditions covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law is designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in hiring, job assignments, promotions, pay, firing, benefits, layoffs, and all other employment-related activities.

The ADA applies only to businesses with 15 or more employees. People with bipolar disorder may want to consider that when looking for employment or considering changing jobs.

Your spouse is also protected by the ADA The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that, "The Act also makes it unlawful to discriminate against an applicant or employee, whether disabled or not, because of the individual's family, business, social or other relationship or association with an individual with a disability." For example, if your husband has bipolar disorder, you are protected if he requires emergency hospitalization and you must be away from work without warning because of this. The ADA is administered by the EEOC. 

Other employees may not understand the rights a person with bipolar disorder has under the ADA. Often people think of disability only as physical impairment. Everyone should learn how the law applies so they know why accommodations may be required.

The ADA Protects the Rights of Employees with Bipolar Disorder at Work

"Disability," in this context, is not related to Social Security Disability. Rather than saying you can't work, it is saying that you have rights and protections on the job while you are able to handle the duties of the job with reasonable accommodation.

If it is determined that the disability causes an impairment that "substantially limits" the person's ability to handle "major-life activities," the employer is obliged to follow the rules of the ADA in the way the affected person is treated. This means providing one or more "reasonable accommodations" to the disabled employee.

The limited or impaired major-life activity can be one that occurs on or off the job. The ruling factor is that it affects some aspect of your on-the-job activities and that activity does not have to be doing the job. You must still be able to perform the duties of the job.

An example given by the EEOC was of a person whose medications caused dry mouth. He needed to drink something about once an hour because of this, but his employer's policy was that people could not have beverages at their desks and could only have two 15-minute breaks per day. It was reasonable to allow this man to have a beverage at his desk once an hour.

Exceptions for ADA Workplace Protections

  1. The employer can show that making an accommodation would cause the company undue hardship, such as accommodations that are excessively costly, extensive, substantial or disruptive, or would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. The size of the business, its financial resources, and other factors can be taken into account.
  1. The employee is deemed to be a direct threat to the health and safety of him/herself or others.

If accommodation is denied or employment is terminated for one of these reasons, the employee can file a claim with the EEOC. The employer must respond to that claim and provide its assertions why the accommodation was not made, or the employee posed a danger on the job.

Businesses with fewer than 15 employees are not subject to the ADA.

What Is a Major-Life Activity That Could Affect You at Work?

"Major-life activities" for people with physical disabilities are generally obvious -- things like walking, seeing, hearing and lifting. For those with psychiatric disabilities, though, they are harder to define. According to the EEOC:

The major-life activities limited by mental impairments differ from person to person. There is no exhaustive list of major-life activities. For some people, mental impairments restrict major-life activities, such as learning, thinking, concentrating, interacting with others, caring for oneself, speaking, performing manual tasks or working. Sleeping is also a major-life activity that may be limited by mental impairments.

Next: Part 2: Reasonable Accommodations and Claims

Sources:

Instructions for Field Offices: Analyzing Ada Charges After Supreme Court Decisions Addressing "Disability" and "Qualified". 13 Dec 1999. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 2 May 2008.

EEOC Enforcement Guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities. 01 Feb 2000. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 2 May 2008.

The ADA - Americans With Disabilities Act. 10 Jan 2007. NAMI. 2 May 2008.

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