I missed out on the heyday of the ADA. People didn’t become as conscious of accommodating people with disabilities until much later. And even then, the most common accommodation was wheelchair ramps. But there are some workplace adjustments or accommodations I wish I had available to me, back when I worked in an office.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), persons with disabilities are entitled to accommodations to make it possible for them to work. Most of us think about certain kinds of lighting, closed captions, or specialized chairs. But what about when you have an invisible disability?
The ADA definition of a disability is one that impairs an individual’s ability to – among other “major life activities” – learn, read, concentrate, think, communicate, and work. Certainly, a number of psychological or psychiatric conditions qualify as producing trouble in these areas. In my case, my bipolar disorder made it difficult to do many of those in your standard office work environment.
But would the ADA have made accommodations available to me? The ADA does include some mental illnesses in its list of disabilities. Examples of mental disabilities commonly considered under the ADA are:
- Major depressive disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
Examples of accommodations or work adjustments for those with psychological disabilities include, among others:
- Flexible Workplace – Telecommuting and/or working from home.
- Scheduling – Part-time work hours, job sharing, adjustments in the start or end of work hours, compensation time and/or “make up” of missed time.
- Leave – Sick leave for reasons related to mental health, flexible use of vacation time, additional unpaid or administrative leave for treatment or recovery, leaves of absence and/or use of occasional leave (a few hours at a time) for therapy and other related appointments.
- Breaks – Breaks according to individual needs rather than a fixed schedule, more frequent breaks and/or greater flexibility in scheduling breaks, provision of backup coverage during breaks, and telephone breaks during work hours to call professionals and others needed for support.
Of course, in order to receive accommodations or adjustments, it’s necessary to reveal to someone – at least your boss or maybe the HR department – that you have a psychological or psychiatric disorder.
My own experience of needing accommodations at work was not great. In the job I held the longest, I only mentioned my depression (as it was then diagnosed), to my immediate supervisor. He was sympathetic, but the work environment was not exactly conducive to my needs.
One of the things that I could have used in dealing with the anxiety that went along with my depression was privacy. At first, that was not even possible, since my entire department was located in a cube farm, where no one had any real privacy. Even the fact that I was an editor and needed to concentrate on my work did not win me a private space.
Later, when we moved to an office that had actual offices, I snagged one with a door. The only problem was that I was not allowed to close the door, or at least looked askance at when I did.
An ideal situation for me (aside from being allowed to close my door) would have been permission to work from home. There was one person at this office who had this privilege, but it was never considered for me. Admittedly, this was very much pre-pandemic, but most of my work was done on a computer, and I had one at home that was compatible with the office computers. It wouldn’t even have been necessary for the company to supply me with one.
Another accommodation that would have helped lots would have been a hotel room to myself at business conventions, which would have allowed me time and space to decompress after a long day of being “on,” meeting and greeting, and being sociable and respectable. Unfortunately, that was a privilege reserved for the men. (As I understood it, the salesmen were booked into double rooms as well, but winked at when they rebooked them into singles.) This may have nominally been due to my sex rather than my mental condition, but not having a solitary retreat from the clamor of a convention definitely had a deleterious effect.
After 17 years at that job, I was let go, most likely because I was considered “unreliable.” At the next office where I landed, I had a boss who understood bipolar disorder (as I was then diagnosed) and who was satisfied with my work. Never a bad evaluation – until that boss left. “I’m going to miss you,” I said. “I know you will,” she replied.
I realized what she meant when I revealed to my new boss that I had bipolar disorder. “What does that mean?” she asked. Taken aback, the only reply I could think of was, “Sometimes I have good days and sometimes I have bad days.” It wasn’t a great description of my condition and set me up for problems. After one year of my mother’s health and my psychiatrist appointments requiring me to miss work, and my missing work in winter owing to living at the bottom of a snowy, icy hill, I received my first bad evaluation. Nothing about my performance had actually changed since my work with the first boss. I could have easily worked from home and occasionally was permitted to, but my work was dubbed sub-par once I did.
(Not that it’s a big thing, but I would also have appreciated being able to take a “brain break” such as doing a crossword puzzle, instead of a cigarette break, since I don’t smoke. And not being asked work questions when I was on the toilet.)
After that, I went freelance, worked at home nearly all the time, and was only required to attend a meeting at an office once or twice a year. I have worked that way since and it suits me. It’s only now that I’ve become my own boss that I’ve been able to get what I really need when it comes to work.