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What do reasonable accommodations look like for people with a history of substance use?

It’s been 32 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, ensuring that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else, particularly in government spaces, public places, and workplaces.

The ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • Has a record of such an impairment; or
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment.

As you may or may not know, prior substance use disorder is considered a disability. Therefore, employers may not discriminate against a person who has a history of drug addiction but who is not currently using drugs and who has been rehabilitated or is in recovery. It is important to note, however, that if an employee is a current drug user, they are not protected by this law as it could pose an immediate threat to the health or safety of others. (Note: Alcohol use is a bit more nuanced as past or present use can be covered by the ADA depending on the circumstances). This means the ADA protects people who:

  • Have successfully completed a supervised drug rehabilitation program and are no longer using drugs illegally
  • Are participating in a supervised rehabilitation program and are no longer using drugs illegally; or
  • Are mistakenly regarded as using drugs illegally, but in fact are not.

Reasonable accommodations should be made available to employees in these instances. These accommodations include things that help an employee perform their job. To a person in recovery or in need of alcohol treatment, reasonable accommodations could be:

  • An alternative work schedule to allow for time to attend recovery support meetings.
  • A leave of absence so an employee can receive the appropriate level of care required to address their needs.

Although not required, employers can provide resources to assist in the access to treatment and/or support services. The SAFE Treatment and Family Support Locator is a great resource for this.

As an employee in recovery, how can you request reasonable accommodations at work?

Reasonable accommodations aren’t always advertised by employers, so it’s important to know that as an employee you will need to request the reasonable accommodations you need. Here’s how you should go about it, per the Job Accommodation Network:

  1. Set up a meeting with your supervisor and/or human resources (with whomever you are most comfortable) to discuss what this will look like.
  2. Be upfront with your employer (when you just get onboarded or if you’re already working there) and let them know that you need time to attend meetings or need a leave of absence. You do not need to mention ADA or use the terminology “reasonable accommodation.” It is something with which your employer should already be familiar. Although not required by law, we recommend getting the approval of this accommodation in writing.
  3. Be prepared to propose ideas for potential accommodations such as specific work schedule changes, dates of leave, availability and best way to communicate during leave (if necessary). Depending on the need, you could ask for:
    • Part-time or modified work schedules (permitting a flexible schedule)
    • Leave (providing unpaid leave in addition to FMLA or sick leave)
    • Reassignment (transferring to a vacant position for which you are qualified)
    • The option of working from home

We know it may be difficult to disclose your previous substance use, but in the long run, requesting the accommodations you need will help you be successful at both work and in your recovery.


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