Disability within the APA

Legislative Round Up: Legislative Activities Affecting Employment of Persons with Disabilities

Mental health conditions are the leading causes of disability worldwide, accounting for nearly 25 percent of all disability across industrialized countries.

By Day Al-Mohamed, JD

Mental health conditions are the leading causes of disability worldwide, accounting for nearly 25 percent of all disability across industrialized countries. Data on labor force participation rates indicate that persons with mental disorders are disproportionately excluded from employment when compared to persons with other types of disability. This creates not only material deprivation but also erodes self-confidence, and increases isolation and marginalization.

While estimates of the number of individuals with a mental health condition who face discrimination based on their illness in the workplace is tentative, it is estimated that about 30 percent of the charges of discrimination to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are based on psychological claims. Workplace characteristics such as the stigma associated with mental illness, the lack of accommodations, labor market characteristics and outright discrimination are central barriers to employment.

Americans with Disabilities Act Restoration

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from discriminating against people with disabilities in all employment-related activities, including hiring, pay, benefits, firing and promotions. However, as a result of a series of Supreme Court decisions and other cases, it has become difficult for individuals with specific health conditions to establish that they have a disability for purposes of the ADA. This includes individuals with mental health problems, psychiatric diagnoses, and other conditions that are controlled with medications or other disease management strategies.

These individuals are dismissed as “not disabled enough” to warrant protection of the statute. This has resulted in court decisions against people who challenge disability discrimination 97% of the time, often before the person has even had a chance to show that the employer treated them unfairly. The emphasis is erroneously placed on the qualification rather than on the discriminatory action. As an example:

Michael McMullin worked as a law enforcement officer in Wyoming for over 30 years receiving numerous awards and commendations. In 1973, he was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed medication to treat his depression, insomnia, and sleep deprivation.

In 2001, he applied for a job as a court security officer at the federal building in Cheyenne. Michael disclosed his clinical depression and was assured that – as long as his depression was under control and treated with medication – it would not pose an obstacle to employment. Michael performed the job without any complaints from supervisors until a doctor reviewed his medical files and decided that he was “not medically qualified” because of his depression and use of medication. He was then medically disqualified from working as a court security officer.

After firing him because of his clinical depression, his employers argued that Michael’s depression did not qualify as a “disability” under federal law, even though it was the admitted basis for its termination decision. The court agreed. Because Michael’s medication successfully managed his symptoms, his depression was not disabling enough.

In response, PI-GRO staff has been actively working to promote a “re-write” of the ADA to bring it back to its initial intent and “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate,” with “strong, consistent, enforceable standards,” for eliminating disability-based discrimination in employment. This has included recommendations for bill language, providing written testimony, discussions with legislative staff and collaboration with both the disability and veteran community.

Disability and Labor Statistics

The Current Population Survey (CPS) has been the principal foundation of official Government statistics with regard to employment and unemployment for more than 60 years. PI-GRO has also been working with the Department of Labor’s

Bureau of Labor Statistics to support the inclusion of the additional questions regarding disability status to the CPS in 2009. PI-GRO is also urging for the availability of the maximum amount of information possible to support research without compromising confidentiality to survey respondents.

For people with a mental health condition, employment is a normalizing factor that provides daily structure and routine, meaningful goals, improves self-esteem and self-image, increases finances, alleviates poverty, provides opportunities to make friendships and obtain social support, enriches quality of life and decreases disability.

Data on labor force participation rates could be a valuable indicator with regard to the participation of persons with disabilities. These new questions may also be used in conjunction with other demographic and labor force data collected in the CPS to examine the characteristics of the population of persons with disabilities such as racial and ethnic minority status and in comparisons to the population of persons without disabilities.

Disability and Research

PI-GRO has been working in other areas that impact employment and disability such as promoting increased funding for specific research to directly addresses societal barriers, such as stigmatization and discrimination, and their impact on people with physical, mental and neurological disabilities. This is critical because although the consideration of employment data can be useful, broad-brush explanations fail to explain the human, provider, and systems motivations that contribute to high unemployment rates and are less likely to offer a scientifically solid basis for developing effective models for future action and public policy.

Getting Involved

PI-GRO will continue to advocate for legislation and policy that addresses the needs of individuals with disabilities. We invite all APA members to participate in this vital process. Experience and expertise in all areas of psychology are necessary and instrumental to ensure that disability issues are effectively integrated into APA’s overall advocacy strategies.

We encourage you to sign up for APA’s Public Policy Action Network to receive legislative updates and participate in coordinated outreach to your federal legislators.


42 U.S.C. Section 12101(b) (1), (2). Allbright, A.L. (2004). Employment Decisions Under the ADA Title I – Survey Update, 29 Mental & Physical Disability L. Rep. 513, 513 (July/August 2005).

Becker, D.R., Drake, R.E., Naughton, W.J. (2005). Supported employment for people with co-occurring disorders. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 2005; 28:332-338.

Ackerman, G.W., McReynolds, C.J. (2005). Strategies to promote successful employment of people with psychiatric disabilities. Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling 2005; 36: 35-40.

Morgan, G. (2005). We want to be able to work. Mental Health Today October 2005; 32-34.

World Health Organization. (2001). The World Health Report 2001 – Mental Health: New Understanding, New Hope. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Trupin, L., Sebesta, D.S., Yelin, El., & LaPlante, M.P. (1997). Trends in labor force participation among persons with disabilities, 1983-1994. Disability Statistics Report, (10). Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.