Hold up, ADHD Is a Disability?Technically, yes. Here’s what that means for you.
There’s no question that having ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) can make life super difficult for some people. The symptoms can impact your focus at work, create conflicts with your friends and fam, and maybe make it harder to keep track of time—but is ADHD a disability?
Yep! It sure is. Though there’s no giant list of official disabilities written into law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was created to protect employment opportunities for people who have disabilities, defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” And as a neurodevelopmental disorder that can cause difficulties with inattention, hyperactivity, or some combination of the two, ADHD definitely qualifies, explains Lidia Zylowska, MD, a psychiatrist with the University of Minnesota Medical School and author of The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD.
People with inattentive symptoms can have trouble focusing or staying organized, while people with hyperactive symptoms typically deal with feeling restless or making impulsive decisions, says Dr. Zylowska. “[ADHD] has an effect on how you function in school, at work, at home, and, for these reasons, it’s comparable to having a physical disability where everything that you do might be more difficult,” she says.
It’s also true that a lot of people with ADHD prefer not to see it as a disability. And while that’s a valid personal call, there are a lot of reasons why the ADA’s coverage of ADHD is a very helpful thing. For starters, it validates the daily struggles people with ADHD face. “Unfortunately, some people think ADHD is not real or not a disability or not a big deal,” says Sasha Hamdani, MD, psychiatrist and author of Self-Care for People with ADHD. The fact that ADHD is a covered disability under the ADA is just more evidence that the condition can seriously impact people’s lives—especially at work.
Why does it matter if ADHD is classified as a disability?
Shifting the narrative around ADHD is great, but the ADA’s legal protection is even more beneficial. That’s because the ADA requires that workplaces with 15 employees or more provide people who qualify with “reasonable accommodations” to help them do their jobs as well as people without a disability.
“[Protection under the ADA] allows people to operate with certain accommodations in place to make their performance equivalent to someone else who [doesn’t] have those challenges,” says Dr. Hamdani. Those benefits, aka accommodations, can range from working from home to extra meetings with a manager—it all depends on what your biggest ADHD-related challenges are.
Does an ADHD diagnosis mean you automatically get those benefits?
Unfortunately, nope. In order to qualify for benefits under the ADA, you have to show that your ADHD is causing significant impairment at work. If you’re able to do your job well despite your ADHD, or if your ADHD is well managed with treatment (like therapy and medication), you probably won’t qualify, says Dr. Hamdani.
And, TBH, even if you are eligible for support under the ADA, the process to receive accommodations can be complicated. First, you’ll need a medical letter from a therapist or psychiatrist that shows that you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and recommends a potential accommodation for you at work, says Dr. Zylowska. In addition, you might be asked to do neuropsychological testing (typically, at your own expense) in order to prove that you’re functioning differently, says Lenard A. Adler, MD, director of the Adult ADHD Program in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.
The next step is to use what the ADA calls the “interactive process.” Basically, this just means chatting with your employer to decide what kind of setup would be helpful for you and doable for them, explains Dr. Zylowska. Hopefully, you settle on a solution that works for everyone involved.
But if your employer thinks the accommodation would be too difficult or expensive to implement, it’s considered an “undue hardship” and they don’t have to provide it, according to the ADA. At that point, you might want to think about whether you can take your talents elsewhere. “I think there’s this balancing act between pushing for accommodations versus saying, ‘I need to find another place that really lets me thrive,’” says Dr. Zylowska.
How can you (informally) ask your boss for help?
Asking for help without invoking the ADA = way less hoops to jump through. Yes, the ADA is a helpful tool—but you don’t always need to use it. Let’s say your ADHD makes procrastination a real struggle. In that case, you could meet with your boss and explain that, in order for you to meet all your deadlines, it’d be helpful to have more frequent check-ins about progress on big projects. That way, you’ll be motivated to get a chunk of work done before each meeting rather than putting the whole thing off until the last minute. With this strategy, you’ll be getting the accommodation you need without even having to explicitly tell anyone you have ADHD, explains Dr. Zylowska.
If you have no clue what would make your work life easier, think about what’s preventing you from doing your job to the best of your ability, suggests Dr. Hamdani. Then, reflect on what your dream scenario would be to improve the situation. Maybe you can’t concentrate on replying to emails because your desk is right next to the noisy, never-not-busy conference room. In that case, permission to work from home a couple of days a week could be a huge help.
Once you’ve settled on your ideal situation, approach your boss and explain your ADHD-related challenges (it’s completely up to you if you want to actually share that you have ADHD, though). Tell them that, to do your best work, [insert accommodation here] would be really helpful, says Dr. Hamdani. If your manager isn’t on board, another option is to take it to HR and ask them what a reasonable plan might look like—still, you don’t have to disclose that you have a disability, adds Dr. Zylowska.
The bottom line: While ADHD is a disability that’s covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, not everyone who has that diagnosis will qualify for formal assistance. But whether you decide to invoke the ADA or ask your boss for some support on your own, you deserve to have the tools you need to succeed at work.
And know that if your needs aren’t being met, you totally have options. You can go the legal route and file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or find a new job at a company that sees your neurodiversity as the asset it truly is.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.