Is Addiction a Disability? ADA Protections & Disability Benefits

2 min read · 6 sections

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 61 million American adults live with some type of disability.1 Additionally, persons with disabilities are 2-4 times more likely to experience alcohol and drug addiction.2

With an alarming prevalence of addiction among people with disabilities, many seek to understand whether addiction itself is a disability. This article seeks to provide insight into this very question.

Are Substance Use Disorders Considered Disabilities?

In short, yes. Diagnosable drug and alcohol addictions, or substance use disorders (SUDs), are considered disabilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act.3

The consideration of what defines a disability may vary according to its purpose for use regarding programs or services.4 Moreover, federally funded state agencies, known as State Disability Determination Services (DDSs), are responsible for providing medical evidence and making the initial determination of whether or not a person has a disability.5

Addiction & the ADA

The ADA was enacted on July 26, 1990, and was designed after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.6 The ADA prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities and ensures they have the same opportunities and rights as everyone else to engage in the activities of general society. According to the ADA, a person is recognized as having a disability and protected by the ADA if they have:6

  • A physical or mental impairment that considerably limits one or more of their major life activities, such as caring for themselves, sleeping, eating, learning, thinking, or operating bodily functions such as respiratory, neurological, or brain functioning; or
  • A history of an impairment that considerably limited one or more of a person’s major life activities; or
  • Been regarded or labeled as having such an impairment, such as being perceived as having a disability, and is treated negatively based on this assumption.

Some disabilities include but are not limited to:7

  • SUDs that have been diagnosed by a practicing, licensed physician.
  • Vision impairments, such as full or partial blindness.
  • Hearing impairments, including mild or profound loss.
  • Mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia.

Can I Get Disability Benefits for Drug or Alcohol Addiction?

Being that SUDs are considered disabilities under the ADA, you may be entitled to receive behavioral health benefits. However, this applies to situations where an impairment, or disability, persists outside of drug or alcohol use. According to the SSA, this determination involves:9

  • Establishing that you have a disability.
  • Confirming medical evidence of your drug or alcohol addiction.
  • Determining whether your impairment would continue even after stopping the use of drugs or alcohol.

If you are eligible to receive paid benefits, then the SSA requires that you receive treatment services at an approved facility when it is available and that you comply with the terms, conditions, and requirements of the treatment that has been made available to you.10 These services are typically provided at no cost.

Benefits that people get under social security/disability include:11

  • Social Security Disability Insurance. Pays benefits if you are “insured,” which means that you must have worked long enough, and recently enough, in jobs covered by Social Security to qualify for disability benefits.
  • Supplemental Security Income. Designed to help persons with disabilities that have little or no income and provides cash to meet basic needs, such as shelter, food, and clothing.

Can Substance Abuse Impact My Disability Benefits?

Possibly. If your substance abuse is found to cause or worsen your impairments, meaning that your disability would improve if you abstain from using drugs or alcohol, you will likely not be eligible to receive disability benefits.

Are Drug & Alcohol Addictions Treated Differently Than Other Disabilities?

Under federal disability rights laws, alcohol addiction, whether current or past, is typically considered a disability due to the effects it has on a person’s brain and neurological functions and is protected by the ADA.7 On the other hand, though drug addiction is generally considered a disability, the ADA only allows protections for those in recovery and not currently engaging in illegal drug use.7

VA Disability & Addiction

For the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) to determine that alcohol or drug addiction is a disability, it must be linked to a service-related issue.12 In other words, it must be attributed to an illness or injury that occurred while serving in the military, worsened after serving, or appeared after ending service.12 Benefits of VA disability may include health care or monthly financial support.12,13

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