The many myths and stigmas surrounding mental illness create barriers in the workplace. Employees with mental disabilities may be hesitant to disclose their struggles or ask for accommodations, and for good reason. Employers often refuse “special treatment” or even retaliate against the person.
If you are a federal employee with a mental or intellectual disability, you have rights. Your agency is required to make the reasonable accommodations you need to do your job and excel in your federal service career. What might that look like?
The law on disclosure and accommodation
Job candidates are not required to disclose a mental disability (or any disability) in the hiring process. You cannot be fired, demoted, reprimanded or taken out of consideration for job postings if your condition is later disclosed or discovered.
The ADA National Network says that a psychiatric disability should not be an issue unless your condition affects your ability to do perform your duties. Your agency is legally bound to accommodate you if you develop a disabling mental condition in the course of employment, if your pre-existing disability worsens, or if your duties change in a way that your disability interferes with your job.
What does “reasonable accommodation” look like?
The Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disability. The ADA specifically requires employers, including federal agencies and federal contractors, to make reasonable accommodations.
For mental disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder, panic/anxiety disorder, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, accommodations might include:
- Allowing the employee to work from home
- Allowing the employee to skip face-to-face meetings
- A quieter work station or white noise earphones
- Flexible scheduling for medical appointments
- Temporary part-time status until the condition stabilizes
- More frequent work breaks
- Supervision by a different manager
The accommodation should be tailored to the employee and their limiting condition, and not merely dictated as a take-it-or-leave-it.
When the agency balks or pushes back
Some employers feel blindsided or betrayed when a disability comes to light. They might give a negative performance review or create a hostile working environment to force you to quit. They might flatly refuse the specific accommodation or refuse to engage in an interactive process to reach a viable solution. All of these responses violate the ADA. If this happens, it is time to consult legal counsel.
Joe Kaplan, a founding partner of Passman & Kaplan, recently gave a webinar on “Accommodating and Managing Federal Employees With Mental and Intellectual Disabilities.” He is intimately familiar with the duties of federal agency supervisors, executives and human resource personnel under the ADA. Conversely, he knows how to advocate forcefully for federal workers who have experienced disability discrimination or retaliation for a request for accommodation.