Migraine Disease and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

“Merriam-Webster” definition of disability:

“a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions”


Controversy surrounds the question of whether or not migraine disease, in any or all of its manifestations, rises to the level of a disability. It seems apparent, in the context of everyday usage; migraine can indeed be a disability. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls it a disability. However, it is vital to remember that in the perspective of the ADA, “disability” is a legal term rather than a medical one. This is an important distinction. Because it has a legal definition, the ADA’s definition of disability is different from how disability is defined under some other entities. The ADA defines a person with a disability as a “person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” This includes people who have a record of such impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability. The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Did you know it was a civil rights law? That gives it extra punch, especially when it comes to discrimination.

Without going into too much detail you should know there were amendments passed in 2008 that substantially broadened the scope of the law.  In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) was signed into law and became effective on January 1, 2009. The ADAAA made a number of significant changes to the definition of “disability.” The changes in the definition of disability in the ADAAA apply to all titles of the ADA, including “Title I (employment practices of private employers with 15 or more employees, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor unions, agents of the employer and joint management labor committees); Title II (programs and activities of state and local government entities); and Title III (private entities that are considered places of public accommodation).”

If you qualify for disability, and you have a work history, you may qualify for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). The average monthly benefit is $117.11 (2017), with a year look back. Remember that’s average income. You are allowed to work to a limited degree. A huge percentage of working migraineurs would not consider that income as a livable wage. Hence, they work, with or without the affliction. So if many migraineurs work, how does the ADA, or ADAAA, affect them? The magic words are “reasonable accommodations”.

Simply put, reasonable accommodations means your employer should try to adjust your situation and your ability to work, access your workplace and stay in you workplace and produce. The changes made, if deemed necessary, should be realistic, not necessarily from the employer’s point of view. Naturally you have to inform your employer/supervisor of your condition. What are the areas that reasonable accommodations are usually associated with migraineurs? Let’s look at the primary areas affected as they may pertain to the workplace:

  1. Stress: Often touted as the number one migraine trigger. All jobs have stress. Deadlines, crises, relations with co-workers, all can be stressful. A stress free environment is unlikely. Maybe you need to work alone.
  2. Lighting:  If fluorescent light is a trigger for you perhaps other bulbs, producing more natural light could be substituted. Also in this category is the ability to wear dark glasses, or use a special computer screen.
  3. Noise: Certain types and noise levels are known to trigger migraines. Wearing noise-cancelling headphones can help immensely in this area.
  4. Fragrance:  Many migraineurs report perfumes or colognes an trigger an attack. Some more enlightened Human Resource departments prohibit the use of fragrances on the job. If this is a problem for you check with HR. Maybe it’s time to look at that employee handbook.
  5. Posture: If sitting in an uncomfortable chair is a problem, that should be easily remedied.
  6. Working from Home: This is something of a last resort. Although not as unlikely as it may seem, many jobs allow work from home if it is practical. If you can produce from home this would be a fine alternative. Especially if you are experiencing the vertigo and nausea that often accompany migraine illness.

Are you a migraineur, employed, and may be in need of a reasonable accommodation to enhance your job performance? Speak with your supervisor, human resource representative, or ADA Officer. Try not to make the interaction adversarial if possible. Most places of employment (check the qualifications above under Titles I-III), will be reasonable. Remember you are likely protected under a Civil Rights Law. That does not mean you can work from home, or all the lighting has to be switched out. The accommodation must be “reasonable”. I can tell you, from my personal experience as the ADA Officer at my place of work, the very last thing I want is the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) paying me a visit. So I really work to find a reasonable accommodation. 

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