The Americans with Disabilities Act considers alcoholism to be a disability and offers limited protection to alcoholics who face workplace discrimination. The ADA’s stance is sometimes at odds with the courts, which often rule alcoholism can only be considered a disability if the disease interferes with the performance of major life activities.
The ADA’s Stance on Alcoholism
The ADA protects your right to “reasonable accommodations” if you suffer from alcoholism. Under the ADA you have the right to accommodations necessary to treat your disease, such as schedule flexibility to permit attendance at support group meetings or therapy sessions. Reasonable accommodations also include the right to a leave of absence to seek treatment at an alcoholic rehabilitation center.
Employers and the ADA
The ADA does not, however, prevent employers from firing employees for alcoholism-related misconduct or poor job performance. The employer has the right to insist employees show up to work sober, and they can hold someone suffering from alcoholism to the same standards expected of those without alcoholism.
Confusion in the Courts
The ADA attempts to be fair to both the disabled and their employers, which sometimes results in legal confusion. Court rulings differ on when alcoholism qualifies as a disability. Several cases ruled alcoholism only counts as a disability if the disease makes it impossible to complete a major life activity the average person can accomplish.
Unfortunately, there are few legal guidelines for when alcoholism becomes a full-fledged disability. This has, in the past, given employers opportunity to circumvent ADA guidelines, essentially arguing the disease wasn’t sufficiently disabling to merit ADA protection.
One has to wonder if the employers — and the courts — would take the same attitude towards other diseases. Would the employer terminate someone suffering from diabetes and argue the disease doesn’t count as a disability? Or Epilepsy? Or a leg amputation?
Disability Insurance and Alcoholism
Attitudes towards alcoholism affect disability insurance as well. Many policies exclude alcoholism, and those that don’t often restrict treatment at alcoholic rehab centers to a maximum of 12 – 24 months. Given the chronic nature of the disease, these time limits are often too short. Again, does disability insurance stop covering Parkinson’s disease, as if the disease will miraculously go away after a set period of time?
Of course not. But society, including bosses and judges, continue to act as if alcoholics choose their disease, which is a little like blaming a cancer patient for her genetic make-up. This attitude towards alcohol abuse is wrong, unfair, and needs to change.