Is ADHD a Disability?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common disorder that impacts how you think, behave and navigate your world. Not everyone experiences the symptoms of ADHD in the same way and there can be major differences in how it impacts daily life. 

Not all people with ADHD feel comfortable with labelling it as a disability. However, for some, it can be an important step that helps them gain access to accommodations. The fact remains that when your ADHD symptoms lead to significant limitations in your ability to succeed at work or school, it is considered to be a disability. Read below to learn about why ADHD is defined as a disability and how you can go about getting a proper diagnosis and the accommodations you need to succeed.

Table of contents

    What is ADHD?

    ADHD is a disorder that is considered to be neurobiological, meaning it is an illness of the nervous system caused by genetic, metabolic, or other biological factors. ADHD impacts areas of the brain that are involved in planning, attention, shifting focus, and executing tasks. There are different subtypes of ADHD — inattentive, hyperactive, or combined — that are associated with unique sets of symptoms. People with inattentive subtypes are more likely to be easily distracted, forgetful and tend to zone out. Those with hyperactive subtypes are often constantly physically active, fidgety and may be overly talkative. When a person has combined type ADHD, they have several symptoms from inattentive and hyperactive types of ADHD. 

    ADHD can impact your everyday life in a number of ways. Common daily complaints include disrupted sleep, disorganization, missing appointments or deadlines, losing things, and mental exhaustion from masking. Certain areas of life, such as work or school, may be particular areas of stress with ADHD. Many people with ADHD also live with comorbid conditions which can contribute further to these daily struggles. 

    ADHD and comorbid conditions

    Many people with ADHD have co-occurring, or comorbid, conditions. Some of these conditions have overlapping symptoms with ADHD. Having more than one disorder can create additional challenges to your work and school functioning. 

    Learning disabilities

    Learning disabilities is a collective term used to describe a range of specific learning challenges that are due to differences in brain wiring. Learning disabilities occur in around 2-5% of the general population and are estimated to occur in 20-60% of people with ADHD. Some common learning disabilities that occur with ADHD include dyslexia, dysgraphia and auditory processing disorder. 

    Dyslexia: People with dyslexia have struggles when reading text. Words may look jumbled, it can be hard to match word sounds to letters, and learning to read and write can be a pretty big struggle. Most people with dyslexia get identified in early school years, but milder forms and children who develop advanced coping mechanisms may go undiagnosed. 

    Dysgraphia: Dysgraphia impacts the ability to write. Forming certain letters may be a continuous challenge, work is often filled with errors, and the handwriting may even look distorted. Typing can help overcome many of these challenges but people with dysgraphia may still struggle to express themselves in writing. 

    Auditory processing disorder: People with auditory processing disorder may have trouble filtering out sounds, struggle with processing what they hear, and their brains often process words incorrectly or out of order — or simply tune it out completely. Auditory processing issues combined with ADHD can feel extremely frustrating and is often quite misunderstood by others. If you frequently have to ask people to repeat themselves, struggle with lectures, and often “mishear” things — you may be experiencing this learning disorder. 

    Other learning disabilities: Some other learning disorders include dyscalculia (math disorder), dyspraxia (motor skill and coordination disorder), and non-verbal learning disability (difficulty reading body language). 

    It is important to note that learning disabilities have absolutely nothing to do with intelligence levels. In fact, many people with learning disabilities and ADHD are above average intelligence. 

    Anxiety and depressive disorders

    Anxiety and depression are amongst the most common comorbid conditions with ADHD. National survey research has found that 47% of all adults with ADHD also have at least one anxiety disorder and anywhere from 19-53% have a depressive disorder. Since ADHD is still quite underdiagnosed in adults, these numbers are likely underreported. Anxiety and depression can both have a major negative impact on daily life. In addition to heightened stress and disrupted moods, both of these conditions lead to sleep issues, difficulty initiating tasks, and can have major negative impacts on social and work relationships. 

    Sleep disorders

    ADHD can seriously affect your sleep, which may lead to an array of negative effects on your life. Studies have shown that around 40-80% of adults with ADHD experience disordered sleep. In addition to issues with keeping a schedule, medication side-effects, and hyperfocus, people with ADHD often have dysfunctions in their circadian rhythm. A condition known as delayed circadian rhythm leads to a natural later bedtime and later wake time, which may conflict with your schedule in the real world. You can check out this article to learn more about sleep issues in ADHD and what you can do to help fix them!

    The Social Stigma of ADHD

    ADHD is still often viewed as a childhood disorder reserved for “disorderly” boys. Despite the growing awareness of ADHD in adulthood, many people still erroneously view ADHD as an excuse people use for behavior that is viewed as lazy or careless. This stigma can make people feel self-conscious about seeking accommodations or even discussing their diagnosis with others. In general, adult ADHD is widely misunderstood by the general public.

    The majority of the research done on ADHD was conducted on young boys. There is hope that as the scientific community expands their understanding of this condition and how it presents differently across the lifespan and across genders, we’ll see less stigma from the public. Learning more about your own condition and having open conversations may help you combat some of this stigma. You can always be proud of the fact that you are here learning, growing and discovering how to advocate for yourself and others who face daily challenges due to ADHD. We’re here with you. 

    Is ADHD considered a disability in Canada?

    ADHD is considered a disability in Canada. As such, with ADHD you have the right to be protected from discrimination or unfair treatment because of your ADHD. You also have the right to seek accommodations that can help you succeed despite your challenges. When ADHD symptoms are severe enough, you may even be eligible for certain disability benefits. 

    Medical recognition

    Medical recognition is important in order to seek out any disability benefits or accommodations. If your ADHD diagnosis is from childhood, you’ll likely need to get reassessed. In many instances, you may just need a letter of documentation from a medical doctor or registered psychologist confirming your disability. Sometimes, disability accommodations or benefits applications require specific forms or detailed reports. Your detailed assessment may include:

    • Identification that you have a disability that requires accommodation (you do not need to list the specific diagnosis);

    • A description of functional limitations;

    • An interpretative summary of any standardized test results if relevant;

    • A description of how you currently deal with your functional limitations;

    • Impact of treatment on your limitations; and

    • Type of accommodations requested and how they can benefit you.

    You can seek a diagnosis through a family physician’s referral to a psychiatrist, seek out an appointment at a private psychology clinic, or sign up on an online platform specializing in ADHD diagnosis and treatment such as Frida. Your healthcare provider can then provide you with the documentation you need. 

    Virtual clinics make ADHD diagnoses more accessible

    Feeling seen, heard and understood is essential in your journey to find the right treatment for your ADHD. Unfortunately, this is not the experience for many people currently seeking help with their adult ADHD. Between backlogs, high fees, and dismissals — thousands of people are living with untreated ADHD as they await care. 

    Virtual clinics like Frida offer a unique opportunity to gain access to affordable specialized ADHD care right at the comfort of your own home. Not only do you get to skip the waitlist, but you can save thousands of dollars by using virtual platforms. Here at Frida, we prioritize your unique needs and help you find the best treatment for you. Try our self-assessment tool today! 

    Legal recognition

    ADHD is considered a disability in Canada and is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadian Human Rights Act and the Employee Equity Act. These laws are in place to ensure that persons with disabilities are protected from discrimination and can enjoy the same employment and learning benefits as everybody else. While the Canadian Human Rights Act merely prohibits discrimination, the Employment Equity Act requires employers to engage in proactive measures to improve the employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. This includes providing accommodations and special measures to account for differences. 

    Understanding accommodations

    Accommodations are meant to remove barriers that prevent people with alternative styles of learning and thinking from fairly engaging with their work or school. Accommodations might include alterations to timelines, special equipment, or changes in format that better allows the person with the disability to engage with the task. You can directly request accommodations at work or at school through a number of avenues. Usually, a letter from your healthcare provider is enough. 

    Not all accommodations can be approved. In addition to proper medical documentation, they must also be considered reasonable. Accommodations are considered unreasonable if they:

    • Put undue hardship on the business (or educational institution), such as requiring an additional full-time assistant if the business is small. 

    • Remove essential job functions from the position, such as only being able to type for 20 minutes a day but the job is data entry. 

    • Displace a fellow employee, such as an accommodation that requires a fellow employee to pick up the additional workload. 

    Accommodations at work

    If you are experiencing specific challenges at your job due to your ADHD you can absolutely request accommodations. You may want to discuss these accommodations with your healthcare provider at first as they may have some helpful suggestions. In general, accommodation requests can be given in writing to your manager and should include medical documentation of your disability. If you do not want to share your specific diagnosis, you can request that your healthcare provider leave those details out. 

    Some common examples of accommodations for ADHD in the workplace include:

    • Limiting distractions (i.e. designated quiet office space) 

    • Assigning a mentor for check-ins 

    • Financial support to buy software that helps focus or equipment such as noise-canceling headphones

    • Providing written summaries of verbally communicated tasks

    • Providing checklists

    • Internal peer-review system to help with proofreading and detailed work

    • Frequent short breaks 

    Accommodations in school

    If you are experiencing specific challenges at school due to ADHD you can often seek guidance on accommodations from internal services such as Accessibility Services or the Disability Services Office. You will likely need to provide documentation of your disability along with recommendations for accommodations. In most instances, the school will work with you to provide temporary accommodations as you are waiting for proper documentation. 

    Some common examples of accommodations for ADHD in school include:

    • Extended deadlines

    • Extra time for exams

    • Quiet working spaces

    • Recordings or written summaries of lectures

    • Assigned note-taker or note sharing

    • Reduced course load

    • Permission to record lectures and use audio textbooks

    • Priority class registration

    • Extra written instructions as needed

    Know your rights

    Under Canadian law your rights are protected as a person with a disability. If your disability creates hardship for you at work or school, your employer or institution is legally obligated to provide reasonable accommodations once you present them with medical documentation. Discrimination due to disabilities is prohibited in Canada by the Canadian Human Rights Act. Additionally, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that persons with disabilities receive the same benefits and protections under the law as any other Canadian. Finally, the Employment Equity Act ensures that persons with disabilities experience the same employment opportunities and benefits as everyone else. 

    Support options

    In order to get a diagnosis of ADHD and proper medication documentation to support your request for accommodations you will need to meet with a qualified healthcare professional. Some support options include:

    • Family physician (may be limited in what documentation they can provide)

    • Psychiatrist

    • Psychologist

    • Nurse Practitioner 

    • Neurologist

    • Virtual care 

    Meet with an ADHD healthcare professional

    One of the most cost-effective and quick ways to get a diagnosis and assistance with your ADHD is virtual care. Virtual care platforms like Frida provide specialized professional care targeted specifically at adults with ADHD. Through Frida you can get a full assessment for ADHD and any accompanying disorders and get treatment delivered right to your door. 

    Explore online resources

    You can find support with online groups such as:

    Bottom Line

    ADHD qualifies as a disability since it can lead to major challenges in your daily life. When these challenges interfere with your ability to perform at work or school you are legally protected to request reasonable accommodations. Although the process may feel intimidating, you will find that your quality of life can improve greatly by advocating for your specific needs. Removing unnecessary stressors and challenges can also help improve your work capacity, boost your confidence, and have a cascading effect of positive changes in your life. If you are considering seeking accommodations, try speaking with your healthcare provider today. If you do not yet have a diagnosis of ADHD or are seeking an assessment with ADHD specialists, try a virtual assessment like Frida. 

    Lisa Batten, PhD, CPT, PN1

    Lisa Batten is a clinical scientist, therapist, and writer specializing in neuroscience and clinical pharmacology. She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology.