We Shall Overcome: Civil Rights for ALL Disabled Workers

Posted on Jan 1, 2000  | Posted in

Rob Lachenauer, the CEO and a co-founder of Banyan Family Business Advisors, wrote in the Harvard Business Review:
 “The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prevents employers from discriminating against people who have a mental illness, but my experience as a consultant at a very large strategy firm whose clients are giant corporations had been that if someone admitted that he or she struggled with depression or mental illness, that would often be career suicide. Indeed, a former vice president of a major investment banking firm, when told about this blog, warned me against publishing it: ‘Clients are afraid to work with firms that have mentally ill people on the professional staff.’ “
Is non-discrimination toward anyone with a mental illness the last great struggle for equality? I have two neurological disorders, for example, that affect my work-related skills. One is a physical disability caused by multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system. It left me vision-impaired and with cognitive limitations that that left me with an inability to learn new skills and bipolar disorder, which is a genetic mental illness and affects mood, concentration and interpersonal relationships. People with MS do not face the same discrimination as one with a mental illness. They are afforded reasonable accommodations to help them succeed in their job assignment. People with MS are not victimized by stigma; mental illness victims face stigma in all areas of their lives and when it affects their livelihood it is understandable why they are reticent about letting employers know they need specific accommodations to succeed.
“Today, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, some 60% to 80% of people with mental illness are unemployed. In part, this is the crippling nature of the disease. But a large part of the problem that we have in hiring people who have some mental disorder is that we lack the sophisticated vocabulary to talk and act regarding these illnesses” Rob Lachenauer wrote.
The definition of disability under the ADA was expanded by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 to: (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. Major life activities also include major bodily functions, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.
Over the past decade, we have all noticed the increasing impact of mental ill health in the workplace. Stress, anxiety and depression, albeit not all work-related, have led to higher rates of absenteeism and lost productivity due to presenteeism (working while sick).
Managing mental health should hold no fear for managers – whether they realize it or not, they already have many of the skills needed to look after their employees’ wellbeing. Sometimes all it takes is an open mind. Mental health is the mental and emotional state in which we feel able to cope with the normal stresses of everyday life. If we are feeling good about ourselves we often work productively, interact well with colleagues and make a valuable contribution to our team or workplace. The good news is that line managers already have many of the skills needed to promote positive mental health at work. They are usually well-versed in the importance of effective communication and consultation, and the need to draw up practical workplace policies and procedures. Add to these skills an open mind and a willingness to try and understanding mental health problems, and organizations can make real progress in tackling the stigma often associated with mental health.
Here is the dilemma faced by all of us with a mental illness trying to get and keep a job: "From the outside looking in, it's hard to understand. From the inside looking out, it's hard to explain."
Until the perception of mental illness changes, nothing changes.


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