ADHD Rights: The Americans with Disabilities Act

What the Americans with Disabilities Act means to people with ADHD

People with ADHD are sometimes defined as having a disability. There are two laws that directly relate to people with disabilities.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, section 504

This law states that programs receiving federal funds, such as public schools or government employers, cannot single someone out on the basis of a disability. That means that any program that gets federal money must provide the same services to everyone.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 1990

This civil rights law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. It does not guarantee special services for people with disabilities, but it does allow a person to ask for reasonable accommodations in a school or workplace. A reasonable accommodation for students is a change that is made to meet a student’s learning needs. For example, people with learning disabilities might need extra time to take a test.

The ADA applies only to people who meet three conditions:

  • They have a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits life activities, such as learning
  • This impairment is documented , for example, a written diagnosis by a doctor
  • Or, they are seen as having an impairment

One of the problems with the ADA law is that it doesn’t define different aspects of disability. For example, it doesn’t explain what a mental impairment is or what “limited activities” include. Congress passed an amendment to the law in 2008 to clarify some of these issues.

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) 

The most important change to the ADA involves the actual definition of the word “disability.” Under the amended law, a person must still meet the three conditions above to be considered disabled – but the terms of each condition are much broader now. The table below highlights some of these changes.

ADA (1990) vs. ADAAA (2008)



An impairment “substantially limits” a person when it prevents them from performing a “major life activity.”The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is now in charge of defining what a “substantial limit” is; in 2009, they created a list of nine guidelines that must be applied to figure out if an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity.
Major life activities aren’t defined.Major life activities now include: caring for
oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. The “major life activities” definition also considers a person’s bodily functions. A person can be considered disabled if any part of his or her body systems aren’t working properly.
Doesn’t account for disabilities that are “episodic.”An “episodic condition” is a disability if it interferes with a major life activity when it occurs. For example, if a person has epilepsy, he or she will be considered disabled if the seizures get in the way of performing daily activities.
“Mitigating measures”—such as assistive devices, medications, or artificial limbs—are considered when defining a person as disabled.Things other than eyeglasses and contact lenses can’t be considered when determining if a person has a disability.


Under the ADAAA, a child with ADHD can be considered disabled. Parents should work with Disability Services Staff to make sure that their children can get the classroom accommodations that they need.


Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (2011). Regulations to implement the equal employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended. Federal Register. Retrieved from 

Long, A. B. (2008). Introducing the new and improved Americans with Disabilities Act: Assessing the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Northwestern University Law Review Colloquy, 103, 217-229.