Responsibilities of Employers toward Mentally Disabled Persons under the Americans with Disabilities Act

Article excerpt

I. MENTAL ILLNESS IN GENERAL II. THE LEGAL DEFINITION OF MENTAL DISABILITY III. WHEN MUST AN EMPLOYER BE ON NOTICE OF A MENTAL DISABILITY? IV. ESSENTIAL JOB FUNCTIONS V. REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION VI. OTHERWISE QUALIFIED VII. DIRECT THREAT OF HARM VIII. THE FUTURE OF MENTAL DISABILITIES UNDER THE ADA: SUGGESTIONS FOR CHANGE IX. CONCLUSION

Proclaimed as "ultimately a civil rights bill,"(3) the Americans with Disabilities Act(4) extended protection of civil rights within the employment sphere for persons with physical and mental disabilities.(5) At the same time, the legislation encouraged the integration of persons with disabilities within the workplace.(6) While the Americans with Disabilities Act incorporates the language of its predecessor, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973,(7) neither Act contains any statutory specifics that address the difficulties of dealing with mental illness in the workplace. Because the Americans with Disabilities Act is vague with respect to accommodating mental illness and because mental illness itself is often part of uncertain science, the rights and responsibilities of employers dealing with alleged or perceived mental illness are also uncertain. One of the areas that is most problematic for an employer when making promotion and retention decisions is making promotion and retention decisions that comport with their legal obligations. Employers raise legitimate concerns about what are their rights in making employment decisions, especially in light of their duty under the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as their interest in maintaining a profitable, efficient business.

This article will discuss the standards of the ADA with respect to accommodating mental illness in the workplace. It will argue the ADA definitions are not precise enough in apprising employers of what are their obligations regarding mentally ill persons in the workplace. It will additionally make suggestions for revising the statute and regulations to achieve this goal. In reaching its conclusion, this article will discuss popular conceptions about mental illness, and the current statutory framework of the ADA. Representative case law will be considered within the context of these topics. The article will ultimately suggest that fairness to both employers and employees can only be achieved by clearer definitions within the statute and an overt acknowledgment that mental disabilities are not necessarily synonymous with physical disabilities.

I. MENTAL ILLNESS IN GENERAL

The medical definition of "mental illness," in many respects, differs from the popular understanding of the term.(8) Popular culture often associates mentally ill as synonymous with insanity "with the result" being a crazed and uncontrolled behavior.(9) This picture may conjure images of straitjackets, forced sedation electroshock therapy.(10) Popular culture does not always associate mental illness with depression or alcoholism-legitimate mental health disorders that do not always substantially affect day-to-day functioning, and, in fact, are quite prevalent in our society.(11)

Mental health professionals themselves disagree as to whether personality disorders, alcohol abuse, and substance abuse are properly characterized as mental illness or personality flaws.(12) There is also a debate as to whether gender-related conditions such as menopause and premenstrual syndrome are substantially "life-impairing" such that they too might require legal accommodation as mental illnesses under the federal statute.(13) In addition, there are some organic disorders, such as mental retardation and Alzheimer's disease, that are both physical and mental disabilities.(14)

Mental health professionals as a whole struggle with where drawing the line between normal and abnormal behavior.(15) The conglomerate of mental health professionals share many common methods of diagnosing "mentally ill" patients, but often disagree on ultimate assessments and modes of treatments. …

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