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Is ADHD a Disability? Unraveling Facts and Myths

Learn more about one of the world’s most common mental health disorders, ADHD-related rights and protections, and how to find support.
Written by
Andrea Tarantella
Licensed Professional Counselor, NCC

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Every day, the conversation around mental health disorders continues to grow and become more inclusive, and in no place is this more obvious than the discussion about ADHD. As this conversation evolves, it's important to understand not just how society views the condition but also how it's treated under the law, whether it's classified as a disability, and what disability benefits you may qualify for as a person with ADHD.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is one of the single most common neurodevelopmental disorders recognized by modern mental health professionals, affecting millions of children and adults worldwide. While the condition has received relatively more attention and discussion among the general public since it was first formally acknowledged in 1902, our understanding of ADHD has expanded over the years.

Specifically, modern research has drawn back the curtain on adults with ADHD, how the disorder presents in everyday life, and the often profound impact undiagnosed ADHD can have on an adult's life. Compounding this impact is the fact that, according to the most recent studies, up to 80% of adults with ADHD go undiagnosed or untreated, leaving them to struggle with feelings of frustration or self-doubt on top of their actual symptoms.

This statistic means that although current estimates put the percentage of American adults with ADHD at 5%, many experts believe the true number to be considerably higher.

Is ADHD a Disability?

While much of the general public still thinks of ADHD as a learning disability, perhaps due to the stereotypical image of children with ADHD struggling with classwork, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) classifies the disorder as a developmental disability.

While the two classifications may seem similar at first, the differences between the two are extremely important to understand. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, a learning disability is a condition that develops before the age of 18 and adversely affects a person's ability to:

  • Understand or use spoken or written language
  • Do mathematical calculations
  • Coordinate movements
  • Direct attention

For developmental disabilities, the Centers for Disease Control defines them as "a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas," going further to say that roughly one in six American children have a developmental disability. These life-long conditions must develop before the age of 22 and include both physical and intellectual disabilities.

Put more simply, a person with a developmental disability may struggle with learning disabilities, but not all learning disabilities come from developmental disabilities. Additionally, a person may be diagnosed with a specific learning disability that affects one particular part of their life, whereas developmental disabilities generally affect a far broader range of activities and behaviors. It's important to understand

As a developmental disability, ADHD is typically broken down into one of three "presentations," one of which is given during a person's initial diagnosis. These presentations are:

Inattentive

Primarily inattentive ADHD symptoms include things like:

  • Poor coordination
  • Difficulty staying on task
  • Stopping projects or tasks halfway through
  • Struggling to pay attention during meetings
  • Frequently misplacing important items

Hyperactive-Impulsive

Primarily hyperactive-impulsive ADHD symptoms include things like:

  • The inability to relax or unwind
  • Frequently interrupting others
  • Physical restlessness
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Impulsive behavior (binge eating, splurge purchases, etc.)
  • Substance abuse

Combined

The combined presentation of ADHD is, by far, the most commonly diagnosed among adults and can be any combination of inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms.

ADHD in Legal Context

Since it was first outlined in law in the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Americans with ADHD have been granted special disability benefits in different areas of life. Since then, activist groups have worked hard to expand these basic rights into a more comprehensive set of protections.

When seeking a diagnosis or treatment for ADHD, it's important to understand potential ADHD disability benefits, including protections at work and in the classroom.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

Initially passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act clearly outlines ADHD as a developmental disability, complete with its own definition and list of rights and benefits. Specifically, the ADA prevents any business with fifteen or more employees from discriminating against workers with ADHD. In this way, the ADA is similar to many civil rights acts that protect a certain demographic.

For smaller businesses, local or state laws often provide similar protections for employees with ADHD, though these may vary. For that reason, it's best to check local statutes to learn about your protections as an employee of a small business.

Additionally, the ADA does not extend protections to members of the armed services with ADHD. Instead, the American military operates under the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which offers similar accommodations.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act "protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability.". These protections extend to any organization or employer that uses financial assistance from the federal government, making it a powerful and far-reaching tool for those with a developmental disorder, such as ADHD.

More specifically, no organization covered by Section 504 can:

  • Deny qualified individuals the opportunity to participate in or benefit from federally funded programs, services, or other benefits.
  • Deny access to programs, services, benefits, or opportunities to participate as a result of physical barriers.
  • Deny employment opportunities, including hiring, promotion, training, and fringe benefits, for which they are otherwise entitled or qualified.

Importantly, these protections and accommodations extend to most academic organizations, so current students or those looking to apply for higher education should familiarize themselves with Section 504.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

For children with ADHD, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, provides some of the most powerful and definitive protections in the United States. According to their mission, this act "makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children."

It’s important to note that these protections extend to all "children" from 3 to 21, provide special grants to help schools better serve students with developmental disabilities, and even offer money to further education in different conditions.

ADHD in Work and Education

Legal protections for individuals with developmental disabilities, such as ADHD, generally fall into one of two major categories: work and schooling. While many protections are similar across these two categories, it's crucial to understand both as you obtain a diagnosis or attempt to receive disability benefits for ADHD.

ADHD in the Workplace

While the most straightforward protections involved with ADHD and the workplace generally prohibit discrimination during the hiring process, the 1973 Vocational Act and ADA go further by outlining specific accommodations an employer must provide on the job. These accommodations are intended to alleviate the stress of common ADHD symptoms in the workplace and include things such as:

  • More frequent breaks
  • A specific workplace or office arrangement
  • Certain technological tools
  • Modified workload or deadlines
  • Freedom to creatively problem-solve

And although many may think that these types of accommodations would damage an employer's bottom line, countless studies have found the opposite to be true. Specifically, one study by the Centre for ADHD Awareness in Canada found that, among employers who offered these accommodations, 85% reported retaining a valued employee, 53% reported better productivity, and 46% said that the accommodations saved the time and money required to train a new employee.

That said, many employers are still in the dark about ADHD, how it presents challenges for certain workers, and how providing accommodations for those workers can benefit everyone involved. In these situations, disclosing your ADHD to a supervisor or manager and pointing them to educational resources can be an excellent way to improve your professional success.

ADHD in Education

Much like how children with ADHD often struggle in the classroom, many adults with ADHD also find certain tasks more difficult to accomplish than their peers. For those with severe ADHD, these difficulties can profoundly impact the outcome of a person's academic career, so much so that only 5% of young adults with ADHD graduate from college, compared to 35% of neurotypical individuals.

To make matters worse, far fewer individuals with ADHD pursue higher education in general, either due to symptoms or internalized feelings of self-doubt and frustration associated with the condition. Fortunately, students with ADHD are protected in several broad and specific ways under the ADA. In their most general form, these protections require colleges to comply with any "necessary and reasonable" accommodation required by a person with a developmental disability.

Just as symptoms of ADHD vary from person to person and across genders, so too do these accommodations. For an individual who struggles to focus due to noise, ADHD paralysis, or other distractions, for instance, a school may be required to provide a quieter or more private location for test-taking. In other cases, a student with ADHD may be granted extra time for tests and assignments, tools to help with note-taking, or even Individualized Education Plans tailored to their needs.

Other Rights and Protections

Beyond the accommodations regarding performance in the workplace or classroom, individuals with ADHD are also afforded several other rights and protections. Among children, these include things such as:

  • free ADHD evaluation upon request or valid reasoning for denial of an evaluation
  • Due process for appeals to all ADHD-related decisions
  • A free appropriate public education (FAPE)

For adults, other rights and protections include things such as:

  • Protection from docked pay or reduced salary due to ADHD symptoms
  • Potential reassignment to a different (vacant) position
  • Working from home
  • Confidentiality of a disclosed ADHD diagnosis

Financial and Social Support for ADHD

Obtaining financial benefits can often be very challenging for those living with ADHD and is usually only possible for those with a severe case of the condition. Still, finding support isn't impossible with the right information and insights.

Supplemental Security Income

Typically provided by the Social Security Administration for Americans over the age of 65, Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, may be situationally made available for children with ADHD who meet strict requirements.

For a child to qualify for SSI payments, they must be under the age of 18, have been diagnosed with ADHD for more than 12 months, and have symptoms that severely impact common daily functions. Additionally, the child's family must also demonstrate a significant financial need and fall below a certain income threshold.

Finally, most children with ADHD who successfully apply for and receive disability benefits through SSI also have other co-existing conditions, such as a specific learning disability, mood disorders, or other challenges.

Social Security Disability Insurance

Most people are aware that Social Security Disability Insurance exists to help those who cannot work due to an injury or condition. What might be less known, however, is that Social Security disability benefits may extend to individuals with ADHD in certain situations.

In order to qualify for SSDI, an individual must have previously paid Social Security taxes for a certain amount of time while employed and must demonstrate an inability to perform "substantial gainful activity" for a period of 12 or more months. For those with ADHD, this can often be a very challenging process. While not impossible, it's best not to expect SSDI payments as a way to ensure financial stability.

Financial Assistance Programs

Perhaps the most reliable forms of financial assistance for those managing ADHD are medication assistance and academic grants or scholarships.

Medication Assistance

For medication assistance, many state, federal, and private organizations exist to help offset the price of ADHD medication or treatment.

In the case of local and state assistance, we suggest checking this resource for programs in your area. For federal benefits, such as Medicaid or Medicare, speaking with your primary care doctor, therapist, or an organization representative is often the best first step.

Finally, an increasing number of private non-profits are being established to help people struggling with the cost of ADHD care. These include sites such as GoodRx, RxHope, or RxAssist. For more information, consider reaching out to your therapist or doctor for more specific recommendations.

Academic Funds

For adults with ADHD of all ages looking for help with tuition, countless grants and scholarships exist to help. While we could list several here, we prefer to list reliable and trustworthy scholarship identification services, such as Bold.org. These non-profit services are completely free, existing purely to connect donors with worthy recipients in need of financial support to pay for higher education.

Community Support Groups

As the stigma surrounding mental health fades and more people begin to open up about their conditions, an amazing number of community support groups have sprung up to help. These groups connect people with similar challenges and struggles in order to fuel conversation, foster community, and reduce the feelings of shame or loneliness that often come with mental health disorders.

To find ADHD support groups near you, we suggest checking the CHADD organization locator or speaking with your therapist for help. Often, these types of groups will offer virtual meetings, allowing for people from even remote areas to participate.

How to Find Support for ADHD Treatment

For adults struggling with undiagnosed ADHD, finding the right support can mean the difference between continued challenges and a truly better life. That said, it's crucial that you find a mental health professional you can trust, and one whose personality and therapy style fit your needs.

When you trust ADHDAdvisor.org to connect you with the right online ADHD treatment plan, you give yourself access to a wide array of different resources and advantages, such as:

Free Symptom Assessment

If you're still trying to decide whether a formal online ADHD diagnosis is right for you, a well-built symptom quiz can provide the confidence you need to move forward. At ADHDAdvisor.org, we offer a quick, thorough, and 100% complimentary assessment designed to do just that.

Therapist Matching

We know that finding the right therapists is one of the most important elements of successful therapy, which is why we take the time to pair you with exactly the right provider. Once we've assembled a list of the most promising therapists, you'll have a chance to meet with them and decide for yourself if we got it right. If you'd prefer to keep searching, we'll provide as many options as needed until you're comfortable with our match.

Uncompromising Standards

We're extremely particular about who we accept into our network of therapists, and we go to great lengths to make sure they're the best in the industry. No matter which therapist you're matched with, you can rest assured that they come with all the qualifications, experience, and dedication they need to help you find answers.

Personalized Treatment

Once you've been diagnosed, your matched therapist will work with you to explore treatment options and develop a plan tailored to your circumstances and needs. Whether that means medication, ongoing therapy, or executive function coaching, we'll find the right mix to get you real results.

Flexible Scheduling

Unlike traditional, in-person therapy, our service is built to work around your schedule—not the other way around. No matter how busy you may be or what hours you keep, we'll find someone who can meet at the times that work for you. Additionally, our subscription option means that you can enjoy consistent, sustainable treatment at competitive prices for as long as you need.

Final Thoughts

While ADHD may be a disability, it's one that can be successfully managed with the right mixture of support and understanding. Finding that support, however, starts with a proper diagnosis and a treatment plan tailored to your situation.

At ADHDAdvisor.org, we understand the importance of quality care and believe it should be as convenient as possible, which is why we provide access to a passionate, expert team of mental health professionals from the comfort of your own home. Whether you're looking for an online diagnosis, want help with continued treatment, or simply want to learn a little more about your potential symptoms, consider trying our services risk-free and seeing for yourself if they're right for you.

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