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May 21, 2021
7 min read

Is ADHD a disability? A complex question explained

ADHD is a mental disorder, but not necessarily a disability. Laws spell out how the disorder can qualify as a disability in children and adults.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a recognized mental disorder, but ADHD is not automatically considered a disability. Federal law outlines how the disorder can be categorized as a disability in kids, requiring schools to provide accommodations. The law also spells out how an adult can be considered disabled with ADHD—but it can be challenging to convince employers to make accommodations or allowances for a person with ADHD. 

Raising the issue is fraught with potential discrimination. For both kids and adults, it’s very difficult to qualify for disability payments due to ADHD.

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Is ADHD a disorder or a disability?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is “a behavioral condition that makes focusing on everyday requests and routines challenging” (American Psychological Association, n.d.). The developmental disorder almost always starts in early childhood but is sometimes not diagnosed until adolescence or adulthood, and it rarely just goes away with age (NIMH, n.d.). Though often thought of as a childhood disorder that kids supposedly grow out of, about 10 million adults, or 4.4% of adults have ADHD (Culpepper, 2010).

Some people with ADHD deal primarily with attention problems (struggling to stay focused, listening well, staying organized, and completing tasks). Others have mostly hyperactive-impulsive challenges (fidgeting, excessive talking, always on the go, even aggression). In some people, both aspects can be present (NIMH, n.d.).

Whether the disorder is considered a disability and what support and benefits might be available is notably different in children with ADHD vs. adults with ADHD. 

Let’s first consider the situation for kids:

Is ADHD considered a learning disability in children?

There’s no question that ADHD can make traditional education difficult for your child. But the disorder is not automatically considered a learning disability. Under the U.S. federal government’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), ADHD falls in the category of “other health impairment” rather than “specific learning disability.” (Learning Disabilities Association of America, 2013). 

IDEA’s definition of “specific learning disability” is “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia” (IDEA, 2018).

However, under IDEA, a student with ADHD can be made eligible for special education services when enrolled in a public school. First, school officials can determine an individual child’s ADHD to be a disability (Learning Disabilities Association of America, 2013). Second, research has found that 27% or more of students with ADHD also have some other diagnosable learning disorder (DuPaul, 2009). 

In either case, a healthcare provider would determine if your child has a specific learning disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5): 

“A neurodevelopmental disorder of biological origin manifested in learning difficulty and problems in acquiring academic skills markedly below age level and manifested in the early school years, lasting for at least six months; not attributed to intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders, or neurological or motor disorders” (CHADD, 2017).

Private schools are not bound by IDEA, but many follow its framework (CHADD, 2017).

In addition to ADHD’s common symptoms of inattention and impulsiveness, here are some of the signs, should they be persistent, that your child may have a learning disorder (CHADD, 2017):

  • Careless mistakes
  • Forgotten assignments
  • Lost supplies

ADHD can be extremely challenging not just for the child but for you and for educators, whether by itself or paired with a specific learning disability. As a parent, it can be helpful for you to write down the behaviors, difficulties, and symptoms that affect your child’s ability to succeed at school so that you’re better armed to advocate for accommodations (CHADD, 2017).

You have significant rights in the matter.

By law, school districts are responsible for evaluating a child suspected of having a learning disability. You can request that they do so. The evaluation must be done at no cost to you, whether school officials do it or outside healthcare experts are involved. If you’ve separately had your child diagnosed with ADHD or a specific learning disorder by a healthcare provider outside the school system, bring that documentation to the discussion (U.S. Department of Education, 2008; U.S. Department of Education, 2016).

Suppose the district refuses to evaluate your student or fails to provide special services to a child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability. In that case, you can dispute the decision under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (U.S. Department of Education, 2016).

In the end, getting some help for a kid with ADHD may not be as hard as it seems, so long as your school officials cooperate. Here’s the final word from the Department of Education:

“Regardless of how well he or she performs in school, a student who has trouble concentrating, reading, thinking, organizing or prioritizing projects, among other important tasks, because of ADHD may have a disability and be protected under Section 504.”

Is ADHD considered a disability in adults?

Adults with ADHD have usually had the disorder since childhood, whether or not they were diagnosed early on (NIMH, n.d.). But under the law, ADHD is not automatically considered a disability in adults (CHADD, n.d.).

The condition can certainly be disabling. It’s typically marked by inattention, impulsivity, and disorganization. Adults with ADHD are less likely to exhibit the hyperactivity common in children with the disorder. Still, they may struggle mightily to cope with challenges at work or difficulties in their family or other relationships (CHADD, 2017). 

Adults with ADHD, including those who may not know they have the disorder, often experience any number of these difficulties (NIMH, n.d.):

  • Getting organized
  • Sticking to a job
  • Keeping appointments
  • Being productive

To be considered as having a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an adult with ADHD must be professionally diagnosed. It must also substantially limit at least one major life activity. In other words: some people with ADHD are considered to have a disability under ADA, and some are not.

To receive accommodations from an employer, an employee must disclose their disability—something a person may or may not wish to do, since such disclosure can trigger the very discrimination a person wishes to avoid (CHADD, 2019).

The ADA can require an employer to provide reasonable accommodations, so long as the accommodations help an employee handle the essential functions of their job and don’t cause the company undue hardship.

Does ADHD qualify for disability benefits?

Adults and children with ADHD that severely limits their ability to function can qualify for federal disability payments under the Social Security Administration’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. But the requirements are strict, and few adults or children qualify for direct payment benefits (CHADD, n.d.):

  • Children: The disorder must seriously limit their ability to attend school and function daily. The condition must’ve been ongoing for at least a year, and their families must have very low income.
  • Adults: The disorder must leave them unable to perform any “substantial gainful activity.”

What should you do?

If you think your child has ADHD and it’s affecting their education, a good first step is to discuss it with school officials. If you are fortunate, the school will work with you and the child—as required by law—to forge solutions that’ll improve things for all three of you. If not, you can contact the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights at 800-421-3481 or 800-877-8339 (TDD) or file a complaint online.

If you or a loved one has ADHD that’s getting in the way of job performance, experts suggest weighing the potential advantages and disadvantages of disclosing the condition. Before telling a boss, you may wish to do any number of things yourself or through discreet requests to help manage the challenges. Here are just a few suggestions (CHADD, n.d.):

  • Seek a private, quiet workspace.
  • Play white noise in headphones or earbuds.
  • Learn self-talk to monitor and control impulsivity.
  • Try meditation or relaxation techniques.
  • Create checklists or record meetings to ensure you don’t forget things.
  • Break long tasks into shorter bits and take breaks.
  • Make use of planners and reminders.

ADHD can be debilitating, but in most cases, it does not have to be. There are numerous helpful medications, behavioral therapies, and even coaching approaches that healthcare providers can prescribe and suggest to help you, a loved one or your child succeed despite the challenging disorder.

References

  1. American Psychiatric Association (2017) What Is ADHD? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/adhd/what-is-adhd
  2. American Psychological Association, ADHD. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/adhd
  3. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as amended and updated in 2009 https://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm
  4. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) (2019) ADHD Asking for Workplace Accommodations https://chadd.org/adhd-weekly/asking-for-workplace-accommodations/
  5. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) (2017) ADHD Changes In Adulthood. Retrieved from: https://chadd.org/adhd-weekly/adhd-changes-in-adulthood/
  6. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD, 2017) ADHD Educational Rights: Public vs. Private Schools https://chadd.org/adhd-weekly/educational-rights-public-vs-private-schools/
  7. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) (2017) ADHD? Learning Disability? It May Be Both https://chadd.org/adhd-weekly/adhd-learning-disability-it-may-be-both/
  8. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD, n.d.) ADHD Insurance and Public Benefits https://chadd.org/about-adhd/insurance-and-public-benefits/
  9. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD, n.d.) ADHD Workplace Issues https://chadd.org/for-adults/workplace-issues/
  10. Culpepper L, Mattingly G. Challenges in identifying and managing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in adults in the primary care setting: a review of the literature. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2010; Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3067998
  11. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (2018) https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/a/300.8
  12. DuPaul, G.J., Volpe, R.J. ADHD and learning disabilities: Research findings and clinical implications. Curr Atten Disord Rep 1, 152 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12618-009-0021-4. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12618-009-0021-4
  13. Learning Disabilities Association of America (2013) ADHD: Affects focus, attention and behavior and can make learning challenging https://ldaamerica.org/disabilities/adhd/
  14. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Could I Have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? Retrieved from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/could-i-have-adhd/index.shtml
  15. U.S. Department of Education (2016) Know Your Rights: Students with ADHD https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-know-rights-201607-504.pdf
  16. U.S. Department of Education (2008) Identifying and Treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Resource for School and Home Retrieved from: https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/research/pubs/adhd/adhd-identifying_pg2.html