ADA Accommodations for ADHD: Reasonable accommodations & legal protections

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, usually referred to as ADHD, is an all too common condition in the modern workspace — as 10.5 million adults in the US have it. To put that into perspective, 4.4% of all adults in the US report experiencing ADHD symptoms of some kind.

If you’re a manager or team leader, you’ve likely had (or will eventually have) a team member or co-worker that has adult ADHD. This can affect their performance without the proper workplace accommodations in place — which the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require.

ADA accommodations for ADHD include things like noise-canceling headphones, private offices, timers for essential functions, and calendars to stay organized. That’s because those struggling with ADHD may have trouble focusing in a noisy environment and prioritizing which tasks they should complete first.

It’s also common for adults with ADHD to struggle with the following:

  • Time management.

  • Excessive fidgeting.

  • Impulsivity.

  • Inattention.

  • Procrastination.

These types of problems often lead to conflict and misunderstandings at work. Yet, with the right accommodations, those with ADHD can still perform well in their positions.

In fact, any employee that has an open diagnosis of ADHD is protected from discrimination under the ADA, and they have the right to request reasonable accommodations from their employers under certain conditions.

There’s quite a bit to know about working with employees with ADHD and their protections under ADA, so stay tuned to discover everything about both.

Understanding ADHD

ADHD is a neurological disorder that causes behavioral issues like trouble focusing, not staying organized, trouble listening, excessive fidgeting, and difficulty dealing with frustration and anger. While it was commonly thought of as a condition only affecting children, it’s now recognized as a disorder that lasts well into adulthood, regardless of a diagnosis early in life or not.

A study lasting from 2007 to 2017 discovered a large increase in ADHD among the adult population, and the condition affects millennials the most. The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association conducted a report on millennial health, and they discovered a 39% increase in ADHD diagnoses from 2014 to 2018. The condition affects 6.9% of the millennial population, which is high in comparison to the general adult population (4.4%).

Despite its prevalence, it’s also a tricky condition to diagnose, as there is no official lab test to diagnose it. Not only that, but those with ADHD usually have other mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and even substance abuse — all of which can mimic the hyperactive behavior that goes along with adult ADHD.

For this reason, many adults that have ADHD don’t even realize that they have it.

Three distinct types of ADHD can manifest in people; hyperactive/impulsive ADHD, inattentive ADHD, and a combination of both.

Hyperactive/impulsive ADHD

Those with hyperactive ADHD always appear ‘on the move’ due to their inability to take things slow. They’re often constantly moving or fidgeting and struggle with waiting for things, which can cause them to become impatient at work.

Besides that, they tend to have difficulty communicating with co-workers. That’s because they habitually talk excessively and interrupt others before they get a chance to finish their thoughts. Due to their impatience, people with hyperactive ADHD tend to act on impulse without thinking things through, which can negatively affect their job performance.

While employees with inattentive ADHD thrive in quiet workplaces, staff that has hyperactive ADHD are precisely the opposite.

Quiet and calm workplaces can trigger their inability to sit still, leading to excessive fidgeting, tapping, or talking. These types of workers benefit more from a noisier work environment, or at least one that has some element of white noise (like a fan or light background music/tones).

Inattentive ADHD

This is the type of ADHD most commonly associated with children who can’t focus at school — but it also affects plenty of adults. Inattentive ADHD means the person has a short attention span, causing them to lose concentration after a short period of time.

They’re also easily distracted, which is why they do best in a quiet workspace (usually by themselves). It’s also common for them to keep switching tasks, often attempting to complete multiple tasks at once while not completing any of them in full. They also struggle with listening and following instructions, organization, losing things, and can make careless mistakes.

The best way to accommodate an employee with this type of ADHD is to provide them with quiet surroundings, task checklists, and calendars to keep them on track.

A combination of both types

There are those that exhibit hyperactive and inattentive behavior, and they’re classified as having both types.

These employees will require ADHD accommodations for their strongest symptoms, such as the inability to focus or sit still.

Does the ADA Include ADHD?

stress-leave-450x350px-2The ADA does include ADHD as a recognized disability and can require some workplaces to provide accommodations for it as long as they don’t cause undue hardship on the business. Also, it’s crucial to note that not every employee that has ADHD is covered under ADA. They’ll have to meet a few requirements to be able to request accommodations from their employer.

First, their ADHD diagnosis needs to be out in the open.

If an employer isn’t made aware that an employee has ADHD, they can’t be expected to provide accommodations. Moreover, employers can use the fact that they didn’t know as a valid defense against claims of discrimination.

Next, the employee must work for someone who employs at least 15 people to fall under ADA protection. Yet, most cities and states have protections similar to the ADA that protect employees that work for smaller operations.

Another requirement is that the employee’s ADHD must limit major life activities in some way. Otherwise, they won’t qualify for ADA protection. That means mild cases of ADHD that don’t impair their personal life, work life, or job functions won’t count.

Lastly, ADA accommodations for ADHD do not apply to the armed forces.

Why is that?

It’s because they’re protected under the original law that ADA was based on, The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which has similar protections.

Legal cases involving ADA accommodations for ADHD

Now that you’re familiar with how ADA protections work for ADHD, let’s take a look at some real-life court cases where employees either claimed discrimination or requested accommodations.

Todd v. McCahan

In the case Todd v. McCahan (October 2000), an employee filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination from his employer due to his ADHD.

The plaintiff claimed that he experienced discrimination, harassment, and retaliation from his employers because of his disability. He had been diagnosed with ADHD in 1997, as he struggled with impulsivity, inattentiveness, and poor anger management, among other things.

He claimed they were in violation of his protections under the ADA.

The result?

The court ruled in favor of the employer, and the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed without prejudice.

Why did he fail?

There were several reasons. First, he didn’t reveal that he had ADHD to his employer when he applied, even though he already had a diagnosis. The employer began to experience issues with the plaintiff’s performance long before he ever disclosed his condition to them.

Moreover, he never requested accommodations for his disability, said it didn’t interfere with his ability to perform his job, and even claimed that it helped him with his performance.

The employer was also able to provide legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for his termination. In particular, he refused to comply with the company’s break policies, repeatedly disconnected customers, and consistently received low-performance scores.

Banafa v. Contra Costa County

Our next example involves a discrimination claim from a forensic accountant against the Contra Costa County district attorney’s office. The employee made several claims, including discrimination against his race and religion — but also included failure to accommodate his ADHD under ADA.

Unlike the previous example, the employee disclosed his diagnosis to his employers and requested accommodations for it. It was also made clear that his condition affected his major life activities, including his ability to perform at his job.

The accommodations he requested (that were denied) included the following:

  • A more flexible start time.

  • A private office with a locked door.

  • The ability to work from home as needed.

  • 24-hour notice whenever a meeting with supervisors occurs.

Since he had disclosed his condition and was denied his accommodations, the case withstood the motion to dismiss and was able to proceed.

How to provide ADA accommodations for ADHD

As an employer, the best thing you can do for employees with ADHD is to provide them with reasonable accommodations (as long as they don’t place any strain on your company). Here’s how you can provide the best accommodations for each type of ADHD.

Accommodations for hyperactive ADHD

Employees that have hyperactive/impulsive ADHD will require unique accommodations, including the following:

  • Providing structured breaks to release pent-up physical energy.

  • Use white noise and light music to keep the office from getting too quiet.

  • Go with a flexible work schedule (occasional remote work).

  • Private workspaces.

  • Regular check-ins to give and receive feedback.

  • Provide an EAP (employee assistance program).

Accommodations for Inattentive ADHD

Here’s how you can best accommodate your employees with inattentive ADHD:

  • Assistive technology (timers, calendars, special apps, etc.).

  • Limit repetitive tasks (focus on their most essential tasks).

  • Chunks of uninterrupted work time.

  • Private offices away from others.

  • Noise-canceling headphones if they work in noisy areas.

  • Allow regular breaks.

  • Provide to-do lists and checklists.

  • Assign them a mentor to work with.

These are all great ways to accommodate employees with ADHD so they can thrive in the workplace.

Wrapping up: ADA accommodations for ADHD

To summarize, ADHD is a widespread disability that affects many adults, and it’s officially recognized and protected under the ADA.

Yet, for someone to qualify for ADA protections, they need to do the following:

  • Officially disclose their ADHD diagnosis to their employer

  • Work for an employer that employs more than 15 people

  • Have their daily life activities impacted by their ADHD

If an employee is able to check those boxes, they’re protected from discrimination and can request reasonable accommodations for their disability.