If ADHD has ever cost you a job — or if it’s about to cost you one — you may feel like your employer fired you for having ADHD. That’s illegal, right?
Well, yes and no.
Wrongful termination suits are inherently complicated, and perhaps more so for adults with ADHD. Yes, it can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and no, an employer can’t discriminate against you because of your diagnosis.
However, ADHD isn’t always covered under the ADA. The burden of proof is on you to disclose your condition to your employer and demonstrate impairments rising to the level of an ADA disability. You can request reasonable accommodations, but you also need to be able to perform the essential functions of your job without them.
To get a clearer picture, let’s make sure we understand those three key phrases: reasonable accommodations, essential functions, and disability.
Disclaimer: I’m a blogger, captain, not a lawyer! This article is based on my own research and my experience as a human resources manager. If you’re dealing with a serious employment issue, use this only as a starting point for getting qualified legal help. A blog post should never be used as honest-to-goodness legal advice.
What is a disability under the ADA?
The ADA doesn’t have a list of qualifying mental conditions and disorders, just a loose guideline: you have a disability if your ADHD “substantially limits” a major life activity compared to the general population. A few examples of major life activities: interacting with others, concentrating, working, learning, reading, or communicating. If you can prove you have substantial limitations compared to your neurotypical coworkers, then you have a disability.
However, every case of ADHD is different, and every job is different. At age 16, I got my ideal job in a bustling copy center. Most people quit within two weeks. I thrived, for the same reason many ADHD’ers thrive as emergency room doctors: I loved operating in a perpetual state of crisis.
Did I have a disability at that job? Nope. Years later, working in a self-directed administrative job, I phoned our Employee Assistance Program and started stimulant medication. It all depends on your brain, your job, and how the two interact.
If your situation does qualify you for ADA protection, you’re entitled to request reasonable accommodations from your employer.
What are reasonable accommodations?
On-the-job accommodations can include:
- noise-canceling headphones
- higher cubicle walls to reduce visual distractions
- extra checklists and cheat sheets
- authorization to work from home under certain circumstances
You can get as creative as you want, as long as your requests remain reasonable. “Reasonable,” in this case, means they don’t cause undue hardship for your employer. Some requests may be cost prohibitive or otherwise infeasible.
These measures are intended to reduce distractions that keep you from working, not enable you to do a job you’re otherwise unsuited for. You still need to be able to perform the essential functions of your job — with or without accommodations.
What are essential functions?
Having a disability doesn’t entitle you to any job you want. Reasonable accommodations can level the playing field, but you also need to find a job that’s right for you and your ADHD self.
Essential functions are the basic things you must do in a job — in other words, the reason that job exists.
For example, at a job managing office IT, I had to know basic computer repair and server maintenance. I was incapable of remembering anything reported to me verbally, which led to a ban on ambushing me at the coffee station. Remembering what people told me wasn’t the reason I came to work every day. That gave me a right to insist that any problem worth solving be written down.
In contrast, an executive assistant’s job exists to keep another person organized. She may need to communicate on her boss’s behalf and manage an overwhelming email inbox and calendar. An overlooked detail, social misstep, or time management failure could be catastrophic. If these skills aren’t your strong suit, it’s not the job for you.
Can you make a case for wrongful termination?
Wrongful termination for ADHD requires a perfect storm of circumstances. Before pointing any fingers, ask yourself:
- Does your ADHD qualify as a disability according to the above definition?
- Did you officially disclose your ADHD to your employer? Is it documented in your file?
- Have you requested reasonable accommodations? Has this been documented (saved emails count)?
- Even without reasonable accommodations, are you qualified to perform the essential functions of your job?
A true wrongful termination case for ADHD is rare, and the downsides of officially disclosing your diagnosis often outweigh the benefits.
Some tips for the future
Losing a job is terrible. Rather than suffering in vain, try to use what you’ve learned to make your next job more successful. Some things to remember:
- If medication helps you manage your symptoms on the job, take it — and take it consistently
- Weigh your decision to disclose your ADHD to an employer — it may serve you better to ask for accommodations without using the official language. For example, “I work better in a quiet environment — may I move my desk to the corner, out of the thoroughfare?”
- Set yourself up for success. Find a job you like, one that allows you to capitalize on your strengths. Avoid jobs that place heavy demands on your weak points.
- Document, document, document. If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation again, start being proactive right away. Save emails, save notes from meetings with your supervisor, and if you want a record of something that was said to you informally, ask for it in an email.
What have you done to prevent your ADHD from costing you your job? Have you ever been fired? How do you think your ADHD impacted your employer’s decision to let you go?