Protection Against Discrimination
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against job applicants and employees with disabilities. This law applies to private employers with more than 15 employees and state and local government employers. To qualify for protections under the ADA, the law states that you must be able to show:
- That you have a disability that substantially impairs one or more major life activities. This means that you must be able to show that you have a condition that, if left untreated, interferes with daily or work activities such as concentrating, communicating or regulating emotions.
- That you are able to perform the essential functions of your job with or without reasonable accommodations. In other words, you must be able to show that you can complete the important tasks or core duties of any job that you apply for.
As of 2008, Bipolar Disorder is considered to be a disability and therefore covered by ADA. It feels a little weird to be considered disabled, but when I think of other folks with Bipolar I know of it rings true. And it could very well be me one day.
I started a new job this summer in the midst of struggles with mania which got worse as the months between then and December passed. Not a bad episode really, but bad enough to be uncomfortable. That’s what mania is for me now: uncomfortable. I no longer enjoy it. I associate it with bad times in my life and fear of a return of them. The main problem is that I get irritable and argumentative with my coworkers. Secondarily, I push the boundaries of socially acceptable.
In previous jobs, I had a tremendous amount of flexibility. I could break when I wanted to and as often as I needed to. I could also surf the net as much as I wanted to as long as I did my job. But that is not the case at my new job. We’re allowed a 15 minute break at 9:30, a 45 minute lunch at 11:30, and another 15 minute break at 2:30. And sometimes I have meetings or have to work through those break times so I don’t get a break time at all. I really have to take breaks, and sometimes more frequently than that, so I decided to invoke the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I posted about this on a mental health forum and person after person shared stories of getting fired after disclosing. I said that I just don’t see that happening to me. I do a good job. They like me here. Yes, I can be a little disruptive once in awhile, but people are pretty forgiving of it.
How to Request Accommodations
If you do need an accommodation, the first step is to ask. It’s up to you to request an accommodation. Once you have submitted a request, an employer is required to sit down and talk with you about possible accommodations. Before you get started:
- Ask your employer’s human resources (HR) personnel how to request accommodation. A request process may already be in place.
- Decide what types of accommodations you need. Be specific. Be ready to explain how the accommodation will help you to perform your job.
- Put your request in writing.
- Talk with your treatment provider and ask if they can provide documentation. Your doctor can write a note, usually in the form of a letter, stating that you have mental illness and need accommodation. It may be helpful to share guidance on workplace accommodations with your provider.
- Take detailed notes and keep a written record of any conversations you have with the employer. Keep copies of any emails you send and any forms you complete.
- Negotiate. Be flexible and ready to discuss your options
I went into the HR director’s office and gave full disclosure of my illness and asked for three accommodations:
- Breaks whenever I need them
- Use of a mental health support forum
- Unscheduled medical leave
She really hopped to. I could tell that she had never encountered this situation before. She likely had never even sat face-to-face with someone she knew was mentally ill. She avoided eye contact, became flustered, and most importantly, became very accommodating toward me. It was clear to me that she understood the legal ramifications of this and wanted to get it right and wanted me to know that she was cool with it even though she was having a hard to showing it.
I’m not at all self-conscious about my illness. I’ll tell anyone I have it, but I think people worry that I might be, so they handle me very carefully as if they didn’t want me to feel embarrassed. It’s very considerate, and very unnecessary.
I just don’t understand how all of these people could have been fired because they have bipolar. Because they need time off to be in the hospital or to go to the doctor. Or because they have a meltdown at work. These are all things covered under the ADA, and I don’t care if I live in a right to work state where I can be fired without cause, I just don’t believe that they can fire me because of a disability. People get fired because they’re bad at their job. ADA doesn’t cover that. I’m not saying that there aren’t tons of abuses and legitimate stigmas, but if you do a bad job, they will find a way to get around it.
But this gets down to the crux of it. Disclose and take the risk of getting fired or not disclose and not get the accommodations needed to succeed. Those who are mentally ill have been mistreated by employees for years with no protection. The ADA does not require disclosure for protection, but it does for accommodation. There is so much fear and ignorance and stigma that’s hard to know what to do. But I decided to put my faith in the system and in my employer.
Time will tell. I took an unscheduled break once and I check my forum a few times a day, but nothing big. It’s nice to know that someone has my back and that my boss understands my needs now.