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People With Psychiatric Disabilities Are Entitled to Reasonable Workplace Accommodations

In 2008, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) to overturn a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases that set an exceedingly high bar for people with physical and mental impairments to prove that they had a “disability” protected from discrimination. By amending the ADA, Congress directed the courts to focus less on whether an individual with a medical impairment met the technical definition of “disability,” and more on fulfilling the ADA’s purpose to eradicate discrimination against people with disabilities. And, as recognized by Congress, one of the ADA’s most powerful tools to eliminate disability discrimination is the duty of an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s physical or mental impairment.

A reasonable accommodation is a modification to the workplace enabling a disabled employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job. An accommodation might be something as simple as raising the height of a desk to allow an employee’s wheelchair to fit underneath or more complicated modifications, such as eliminating non-essential job duties; a part-time or modified work schedule; reassignment to a vacant position; and providing readers and interpreters. The only restrictions upon an employer’s duty to accommodate its workers’ disabilities are that the modification must not impose an “undue hardship” upon the employers (in terms of expenses or organizational change), and the employer need not eliminate the essential functions of the job in question.

The obligation to provide reasonable accommodations applies equally to employees with psychiatric disabilities as it does to employees with physical disabilities. The types of accommodations that an individual with a mental disability needs, however, might not be as obvious.

Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation has identified some of the difficulties that individuals with psychiatric disabilities face in doing their jobs. These difficulties include:

•    Screening out environmental stimuli;
•    Sustaining concentration;
•    Maintaining stamina and pace;
•    Tolerating stress;
•    Handling time pressures and multiple tasks;
•    Interacting with others;
•    Responding to negative feedback; and
•    Responding to change.

The Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, as well as other researchers, have found that the following accommodations are effective in helping people with psychiatric disabilities overcome these limitations and perform their jobs:
•    Reassigning non-essential job duties that require a great deal of interacting with people (e.g. reassigning a typist’s reception duties);
•    adjusting work schedules to allow time off for therapy appointments or a later starting time because of drowsiness from medications;
•    Flexible and extended leave;
•    Specialized equipment and assistive devices, such as the use of emails to give the employee his or her daily instructions;
•    Modifying the physical work site, such as by building interior partitions around a workstation to minimize distractions;
•    job coaches and mentors.
The Job Accommodation Network (“JAN”), funded by the federal government, has a great deal of experience in assisting both employers and employees in developing reasonable accommodations for employees with all kinds of disabilities, including psychiatric disabilities. JAN can be reached at (800) 526-7234 or http://askjan.org/.
The next question, to be addressed in another blog posting, is how well are the courts enforcing the right to reasonable accommodation for people with psychiatric disabilities.