ADA Blog


ADA Blog #29

Our Thoughts Often Misguide Our Actions

It’s been almost 21 years since the ADA was signed into law and the greatest barrier to employment for people with disabilities continues to be the consciously and unconsciously-held beliefs, myths and fears we hold about their condition...not the disabilities themselves. This is even more apparent for people with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities.

This was confirmed at a hearing held by the EEOC this week. The hearing focused on a group of people whose rate of unemployment and underemployment far exceeds the national average. To date, the proportion of the population of people with disabilities who are employed is estimated to be 17%, compared to 63% for people without disabilities. The employment rate for individuals with psychiatric disabilities is not only low compared to the general population; it is also half the employment rate for people with other types of disabilities.

Chief among the misapprehensions surrounding the employment of people with psychiatric disabilities is that they are violent. In fact, a psychologist from the Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center of Dartmouth Medical School, told the Commission, “violence is exceedingly rare among people with mental illness . . . [and] being employed significantly reduces the possibility of violence even further.”

What we do often defines who we are. When meeting someone for the 1st time, what is among our initial questions--What do you do for a living?” Work commands respect, and it represents agency, responsibility, and independence. Work is the place where people with and without disabilities can come together, share common projects, and break down barriers of stereotype and prejudice.” 

After working successfully for a number of years at a company without incident, a person with a psychiatric disability, was discharged while hospitalized due to her disability because her supervisor had a “gut feeling” that she was a “danger” and had to “look out for the safety of his other employees.” Following a lawsuit by the EEOC alleging failure to accommodate and discriminatory termination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the case was settled for $360,000.

People with hidden disabilities, such as intellectual or psychiatric disabilities may already be in your workforce without your knowledge. But be on guard. Often, they endure ridicule, and harassment by others in the workplace and don’t say anything for fear of losing their job.

Harassment on the job is a serious matter and employers are required to address such behavior immediately. During the EEOC hearing, one manager related how pleased he was when employees with intellectual disabilities were able to move up to more complex jobs with greater responsibilities. He said that dealing with people’s individualized needs, as he does with employees with mental disabilities, makes him a better manager for all of his employees.

Research continues to show that most of the accommodations individuals with mental disabilities need can be provided in a well-managed, flexible workplace, often without any out-of-pocket costs to the employer. In fact, we know that these flexibilities have the effect of helping all employees, not just those with disabilities.

People with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities can work, and want to work, just like everyone else. And it’s a win-win situation when employers figure out how to tap that work potential.


This information should not be construed as "legal advice" for a particular set of facts or circumstances.  It is intended only to be a practical guide for participants familiar with this subject.  Users should seek appropriate legal advice tailored to address their specific situation.