- The Americans with Disabilities Act protects people being treated for and recovering from opioid use disorder, U.S. Department of Justice guidance issued April 5 reminded employers.
- While the ADA doesn't protect illegal drug use, the ADA does protect people taking legally-prescribed medication to treat their OUD, the guidance stated.
- The DOJ "is committed to using federal civil rights laws such as the ADA to safeguard people with opioid use disorder from facing discriminatory barriers as they move forward with their lives," Kristen Clarke, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, said in a release.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines opioids as chemicals that interact with receptors in the nerve cells in the body and brain to reduce the intensity of pain. Prescription opioids are often used to treat pain following surgery or injury, or for cancer or chronic pain, the CDC says. They include oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone and morphine. Opioids can be dangerously addictive.
The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability, which is defined as: 1) having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including major bodily functions; 2) a record of such an impairment; or 3) being regarded as having such an impairment.
Drug addiction occurs when the repeated use of drugs causes clinically significant substantial impairment, the guidance explains. Therefore, people with OUD may meet the ADA's definition of disability when they experience an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
Some of these nuances may be hard to understand. For example, the ADA doesn't protect people with OUD who are currently engaged in the illegal use of drugs. But illegal use doesn't include taking a medication, including an opioid, under the supervision of a licensed health care professional to treat OUD.
The guidance gives examples to help clarify. In one, a volunteer for a mentoring program tests positive for opioids following a mandatory drug test for illegal drug use. The volunteer does not have a valid prescription for the drug. Under the ADA, the volunteer can be dismissed.
In another example, an employer fires an employee because he disclosed that he completed treatment for a previous addiction to prescription opioids. The guidance says the employer may be in violation of the ADA for discriminating against the employee based on his record of OUD.
In a final example, an employer mistakenly believes an employee has OUD simply because she uses opioids legally prescribed by her physician to treat pain associated with an injury. The ADA prohibits the employer from firing the employee based on this mistaken belief.