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Introduction to Disability
If you or a loved one is disabled because of a physical condition or mental illness, you can learn about your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, the Disability Center provides access to information about Social Security Benefits and organizations that may be able to provide assistance.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is commonly believed to be a law about the rights of people with physical disabilities. However, the law is also for people with psychiatric disabilities. It forbids discrimination against people with both physical and mental disabilities in employment, transportation, public facilities, and public communications.

The employment requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act are especially important for people with psychiatric disabilities. This is because many employers share society's fear, prejudices, and lack of information about mental illness.

According to the ADA, an "individual with a disability" is a person who:

  1. has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his/her major life activities;
  2. has a record of such an impairment; or
  3. is regarded as having such an impairment.
To be protected under the ADA, an individual must prove that he or she passes this three-pronged test. When a disability severely affects an individual's physical abilities (for example, paralysis or a severe vision or hearing impairment), this may not be difficult. The task is harder for people with "hidden" disabilities (such as psychiatric disabilities) that are not so easy to identify.

To be protected by the ADA's employment requirements, it is not enough to be an individual with a disability. Rather, the ADA prohibits employment discrimination against "qualified individuals with disabilities".

A qualified individual with a disability is an individual with a disability who meets the skill, experience, education, and other job-related requirements of a position held or desired, and who, with or without reasonable accommodations, can perform the essential functions of a job.

What is meant by "reasonable accommodations"? Accommodations are changes to the work environment or the way things are usually done that allow an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.

There are many reasonable accommodations that may be useful to people with psychiatric disabilities. Examples are restructuring job tasks, providing self-paced workloads and flexible hours, furnishing written job instructions, and allowing time off for professional counseling.

An accommodation is not considered reasonable if it creates an "undue hardship" for the employer. Undue hardship refers not only to financial hardship, but also to accommodations that are overly extensive or disruptive, or that would change the nature or operation of a business.

The ADA is a legal tool to fight discrimination. Any person who believes he or she has experienced employment discrimination based on a psychiatric disability has a right to file an administrative "charge" or "complaint" with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a state or local anti-discrimination agency.

Learn more about the EEOC and disability discrimination.

The U.S. Department of Justice also maintains a website (ADA Home Page) that provides a wide range of information about the Americans with Disabilities Act. The site provides assistance for people with disabilities and for employers.

For general information about the ADA, answers to specific technical questions, free ADA materials, or information about filing a complaint, the federal government also provides the following ADA Information Lines:

Voice: 800-514-0301
TTY: 800-514-0383

The Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs are the largest of several federal government programs that provide assistance to people with disabilities. While these two programs are different in many ways, both are administered by the Social Security Administration and only individuals who have a disability and meet medical criteria may qualify for benefits under either program.
Social Security Disability Insurance pays benefits to you and certain members of your family if you are "insured" meaning that you worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes. This section explains the benefits available, how you can qualify, and who can receive benefits. It also explains how to apply for the benefits and what happens when your application is approved.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pays benefits based on financial need. SSI is designed to help aged, blind, and disabled people, who have little or no income; and to provide cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter.

When you apply for either program, the Social Security Administration collects medical and other information from you and makes a decision about whether or not you meet Social Security's definition of disability.

The definition of disability under Social Security is different than other federal government programs. Social Security pays only for total disability. No benefits are payable for partial disability or for short-term disability.

Disability under Social Security is based on your inability to work. You are considered disabled under Social Security rules if you cannot do work that you did before and Social Security decides that you cannot adjust to other work because of your medical condition(s). Your disability must also last or be expected to last for at least one year or to result in death.

This is a strict definition of disability. Social Security program rules assume that working families have access to other resources to provide support during periods of short-term disabilities, including workers' compensation, insurance, savings and investments.

Use the Benefits Eligibility Screening Tool to find out which programs may be able to pay you benefits. The Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool (BEST) is a tool that you can use to find out if you could be eligible for benefits from any of the programs Social Security administers. This tool gives you eligibility information based on answers you give to the questions.

additional resources

This listing provides you with Internet sites that are sponsored by government agencies or are well-known and credible national organizations. For additional resources use the section of this site called Support Organizations A to Z.

American Civil Liberties Union
Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems
U.S. Department of Justice
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Surfing the Internet
When looking at Internet sites, remember that the information can be sponsored by anyone. Take into account the sponsoring group or individual when gathering information or help. Be especially careful about giving out personal or financial information.

Learn more about surfing the web:

Last modified on: 30 June 2015

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