The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
Mental and Psychological Disorders       (Public Law 101-336)

By:  Michael G. Conner, Psy.D, Clinical and Medical Psychologist


Table of Contents


What is the purpose?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of a qualifying disability.

What does the ADA apply to?

The ADA applies to every aspect of employment including recruitment, hiring, promotion, demotion, layoff and return from layoff, compensation, job assignments, job classifications, paid or unpaid leave, fringe benefits, training, and employer-sponsored activities, including recreational or social programs.

What is a disability?

Disabilities are conditions "that place substantial limitations on major life activity."

What is a major life activity?

Major life activities include such activities as "caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working."

What is a substantial limitation?

There is no absolute standard for determining when an impairment is a substantial limitation. Temporary conditions can be covered and substantial, but must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis with consideration of the duration (or expected duration) and the extent to which the impairment actually limits a major life activity.

Who is potentially qualified?

Individuals may be qualified if they are:

  • regarded and treated by others as having an impairment,
  • have a record of impairment, or
  • have an active impairment.

Individuals who are potentially protected include those who:

  • have a history of mental or emotional impairment that substantially limits a major life activity,
  • have been misdiagnosed as having a mental or emotional disorder, or
  • are treated as if they have a mental or emotional impairment when there is no impairment.

What mental impairments are covered?

Mental impairments covered "include mental and psychological disorders, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities."

What conditions are specifically excluded?

"Exclusions include transvestitism, transsexuals, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorder not resulting from physical impairments, other sexual disorders, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, and psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from current illegal use of drugs. Sexual orientation is not considered a disability unless the person is regarded and treated as disabled."

Does a potentially destructive, dangerous or suicidal person qualify?

A person does not qualify "if that person poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others and that threat cannot be eliminated or reduced to an acceptable level by modification of policies, practices, procedures, or by the provision of auxiliary aids or services." A direct threat cannot be based on "generalizations or stereotypes" about a mental or emotional impairment. Employers have a responsibility to consider the feasibility of alternative accommodations to resolve a crisis.

Do people with drug or alcohol problems qualify?

Physical impairments such as drug addiction and alcoholism are covered. Drug addicts who no longer take drugs are protected. A person engaged in current illegal drug use may not qualify.

Do people exhibiting inappropriate or negative behavior qualify?

Mental impairments "do not include common personality traits such as poor judgment or a quick temper, where these are not symptoms of a mental or psychological disorder."

Who must make an "reasonable accommodation"?

All private and public employers or entities must make a "reasonable accommodation" for a known mental or emotional impairment unless the accommodation would impose an "undue hardship". Employers have a responsibility to evaluate any request for an accommodation if they employ more than 50 people.

What is an "undue hardship"?

"Undue hardship" means significant difficulty or expense relative to the operation of a private or public business or entity.

How is a "Reasonable Accommodation" developed?

A psychologist, physician or competent counselor or social worker can determine if a qualifying disability exists and design a reasonable accommodation by working cooperatively with employers, organizations and the patient. A reasonable accommodation does not cause "undue hardship" for an employer or an organization. Typical accommodations for mental impairments may include:

  • establishing clear expectations and contingencies for self-care
  • provisions to allow treatment for a mental or psychological disorder
  • restructuring a job or the job application process
  • aids and devices to compensate for deficits
  • part-time or modified work schedules
  • training supervisors