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ADA Does Not Protect Employees With Psychiatric Disabilities

January 27 2007 - New research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in the Maryland Law Review is stated to be the first to investigate outcomes for individuals with psychiatric disabilities claiming discrimination by employers.

The study team comprised Kathryn Moss, Ph.D., head of disability research at the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina; Jeffrey Swanson, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center; and Scott Burris, James E. Beasley professor of law at Temple University. Other researchers were Leah Ranney and Michael Ullman of the University of North Carolina.

The study found that sixteen years after enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with psychiatric disabilities have less favourable outcomes in claims of employment discrimination than those with physical disabilities.

Jeffrey Swanson explained: "People with psychiatric disabilities were less likely to receive a monetary award or job-related benefit, more likely to feel as though they were not treated fairly during the legal proceedings and more likely to believe they received less respect in court. When people with disabilities sue their employers for discriminating against them, they are hoping to achieve a tangible result, such as getting their job back or receiving some monetary compensation. But that's not the only thing that matters. They want to be heard and treated fairly. Sometimes that alone can signal victory for a plaintiff, but if that doesn't happen, it can add insult to injury."

Researchers explain that under the terms of the ADA, people who believe they have been subject to discrimination at work due to physical or mental disability can complain to the US Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) and file a lawsuit if unsatisfied with the outcome. The EEOC and courts use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association to determine which illnesses are recognized and the list includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and most anxiety disorders.

Researchers reviewed court settlements and judicial decisions from 4114 cases filed between 1993 and 2001. Telephone interviews were conducted with a representative sample of 148 plaintiffs with a psychiatric disability and 222 plaintiffs with a physical disability. The study found that 37 per cent of those with psychiatric disabilities received a settlement from the defendant or a favourable court ruling, compared with 49 per cent of plaintiffs with physical disabilities.

Kathryn Moss said:

"A common complaint about the ADA is that the law is a boon for people with psychiatric and other 'trivial' disabilities, and our research shows this isn't correct. We have consistently found that painfully few people with psychiatric disabilities receive protection from the ADA's employment discrimination enforcement system."

The study found that of plaintiffs with psychiatric disabilities 19 per cent felt the judge had treated both sides fairly (compared to 31 per cent with physical disabilities), 39 per cent felt they were treated with respect during the legal process (compared to 52 per cent), and 19 per cent were satisfied with the overall experience of filing a lawsuit (compared to 36 per cent).

Scott Burris commented:

"The findings shed light on a significant problem that needs to be addressed through continuing education of judges, lawyers and others responsible for enforcing the ADA. It's not enough to give people employment rights on paper. The legal system has the responsibility to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to vindicate their rights in practice."

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