Accommodating Mental Disabilities

One of the inevitable problems that the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), which went into effect January 1, 2009, will cause employers will be the difficulty figuring out how to treat every disabled employee on a case by case basis while all other discrimination laws demand that you treat every one equally. That problem is exacerbated when the employer is trying its best to reasonably accommodate an employee or applicant with a mental impairment.

Let’s look at hypothetical situation: Your newest sales person, Anne, is a 25-year-old, high energy extrovert. She is great when sent out to call on customers. But Anne’s paperwork is a mess and her lack of time management drives you crazy. During organizational meetings, she continuously bounces her left leg and clicks her pen. Everyone on the sales team can pick up on her impatience with any planning process.

Despite Anne’s sales ability, you are about to decide that she is not the right fit for your organization, when Anne drops into a casual conversation the fact that she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) when she was in middle school and has been off and on Ritalin ever since. This is not an uncommon situation, since 5.2 percent of the working adult population in the United States has ADHD, according to the World Health Organization.

Firing Anne outright for lack of organizational ability would be a mistake, now that you are aware of the disability. Just telling her to stop her pen-clicking habit is not enough. You must work with her to determine if there is a reasonable accommodation that would allow her to perform the essential functions of her job. For example, many people with ADHD have difficulty focusing for hours at a time. There may be a way to break up Anne’s schedule to allow her to accomplish more work in smaller blocks of time. She may be able to skip meetings and simply be informed of the outcome if her input is not essential to the brain-storming sessions. You may want to provide her with better time management and task software that provides her with alerts to bring her focus back onto the tasks at hand.

There are many other accommodations that might allow Anne to do her job, which can be explored through the Job Accommodation Network. Your main goal as the employer has to be to work through the accommodation process with Anne and without resentment or bitterness. I know that you would like to establish policies and procedures that apply to every employee equally. And that is what most of the discrimination laws require. But the Americans with Disabilities Act is different and the recent amendments emphasize that difference. It is easy for an employer to decide that the ADAAA is unfairly demanding of special treatment for one employee when you have a whole business to run, but you have little choice but to comply or face an expensive disability discrimination lawsuit and regulatory oversight of your company by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Many employers expect the rest of their staff to resent the disabled person’s “special treatment”. You may be pleasantly surprised at how accepting Anne’s coworkers are of the efforts to accommodate her. The younger generation of workers has grown up with classmates who required accommodations in school, whether they needed more time on tests, to sit up front where focusing on the teacher is easier, or to have individualized instruction geared to their particular learning style.

However, if Anne’s coworkers are unhappy, you simply cannot worry about them. They do not need an explanation, particularly about confidential medical information involving a coworker. They will be happy to partake of your favoritism and confidentiality when they are the ones faced with a disability.

Leave a Reply