Busting Barriers: ADHD and ADA Accommodations at Work

A blue, orange and red graphic with solid black text and illustrations. The text in the blue portion reads: "ADA Americans with Disabilities Act." Below that, in the orange and red sections, are solid black illustrations that are meant to symbolize or represent various types of disabilities. Listed in order: signing hands, two arrows pointing to an ear with a device in it, a pair of black glasses, an eye with a line crossed through it, representation of braille text with the word underneath, the traditional wheelchair user symbol, an amputee using a cane, a service dog, a person with a white cane, and a person's head with the brain visible.

When I speak to other ADHDers who were diagnosed as adults, they share a common refrain: “Why didn’t anybody tell me sooner?” No, it’s not supposed to be hard to sustain friendships or clean the house. In fact, there are medications, therapies, tools, resources, and support networks that are here to help improve the quality of your life. But there’s one you might only be peripherally aware of that you’re probably not using—yet.

Having ADHD is a disability. At least, it is one if you choose to identify as such. This means that you might be one of the titular people with disabilities referenced in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This piece of legislation guarantees certain civil rights, including those regarding your employment. Work doesn’t have to be torture.

I disclosed having ADHD long before I realized that I was disclosing a disability. Now I’m asking for accommodations. I recently discovered that my workplace can: provide schedule flexibility and work-from-home opportunities; provide quiet, non-distracting spaces; and even require supervisors to learn about ADHD so that they improve their supervision techniques and practices. Under the Job Accommodations Network (JAN), there were dozens of suggested accommodations I could seek.

For the entirety of my adult life, I had no idea the ADA included me. I’d softly nod when I saw a building retrofitted with ramps and accessible bathroom equipment. I was even grateful for the ADA when I was heavily pregnant, because it enabled me to teach daytime high school and evening college classes. I think I had some cognitive dissonance; I didn’t see myself as disabled because I saw my ADHD as an annoyance, a character flaw. I would apologize for not being able to work in certain conditions, rather than demanding the conditions be changed.

Knowing how to use the ADA as an ADHDer could have helped me hold down other jobs, survive in inhospitable workplaces, and feel like I wasn’t the problem. For years, I avoided learning about the ADA because it felt inaccessibly elaborate, not relevant or applicable to me, and a little last-century. It was, after all, written before work looked like what it does for some now. It also felt like requesting accommodations would invite stigma. I know the ADA is complicated; this isn’t a deep dive on that. However, I wanted to provide my community, to the best of my ability, with the knowledge, resources, and experiences I’ve amassed in the spirit of paying it forward. This is particularly important because it’s information that fellow ADHDers may not otherwise be receiving.

Because of the barriers we face, people with ADHD are less likely to go to college; it’s not common for us to have three years of law school under our belts. When I say the ADA is a piece of legislation, I point out that it’s already in a different tier of legibility because it’s written in legalese. You do not have to have a law degree to use it. But the following tips, based on my own experience, can be a useful guide to navigate the process.

First, and this is incredibly hard: if the situation warrants it, reach out to your doctor for a formal diagnosis. The barriers to diagnoses are manifold, but the proof is in the papers if you can get them. The law generally does not require you to provide proof of disability to ask for what you need. However, in cases where your disability isn’t considered apparent, legally your employer can ask for it, so be prepared. You can use that proof as a form of protection against ableist discrimination.

Next, look at resources like Ask JAN (Job Accommodation Network) and your own communities of ADHDers, like forums and online groups, for advice about which tools, modifications, and processes help them. A common tool I’ve come across is noise abatement, or noise canceling, headphones. Even if that’s the only thing on your list, it’s something; it can make a massive difference in your ability to concentrate. If you’re anything like me, the sound of the cat bathing himself or the refrigerator humming can make opening a laptop feel pointless. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.

Once you have a list, carefully consider what would count as a reasonable accommodation that allows you to perform your job well. If you’re the front desk secretary at a busy dental hygienist’s office and the sound of the drill is distracting, it might be unreasonable, given the scope of your duties, to ask to work from home. Accommodations have to be considered reasonable by the average person in order to present them to your employer, so use your discernment or check with your online communities for guidance. What’s worse than not asking? Asking and being shot down, to be honest, because asking for accommodations means disclosing a disability. Think carefully before embarking on this journey; this can become a precarious situation both interpersonally and systemically.

I disclosed my disability without even thinking of it as a disability. It was in my “fun facts” list on my first day of orientation. Mentioning that you have ADHD can lead to invasive questions, assumptions about the quality of your work, or even unsolicited advice. Because of that, disclosing is the last step I’d recommend; do your homework first. Only when you’re ready—and you know what your ask is—should you explain your needs.

Remember that Human Resources exists to protect the interests of the company. When you ask for job accommodations, if necessary frame it as a way to increase your contributions, be a better quality employee, and find more success. Ultimately, it’s all true. Accommodations are designed to give you those experiences, in addition to leveling the playing field. They can help you feel like you’re not drowning. They won’t fix everything but, in my experience, they can really make a difference.

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