What to Know—Is Addiction a Disability?
One of the most common questions people have is “is addiction a disability.” There are a few reasons someone might want to know whether or not drug addiction is a disability or alcohol addiction is a disability.
They may wonder what their protections are under the Americans with Disabilities Act at their place of employment for example, or perhaps they wonder about Social Security Disability for people with addiction. The following provides an overview of what to know and answers the question “is addiction a disability.”
Addiction as a Disease
Before delving into the answer to is addiction a disability, it’s useful to understand more about the concept of addiction as a disease. There is an unfortunate misconception that people who struggle with an addiction to drugs or alcohol simply don’t have morals or willpower.
The reality is that addiction is a disease and a complex one at that.
Addiction alters the brain and how it functions in profound ways.
Researchers view addiction as a chronic disorder. As with other chronic disorders, it usually occurs because of multiple factors including genetics and environment. Also, as is the case with other chronic diseases, addiction is treatable and can be managed, but isn’t necessarily curable.
When someone struggles with addiction, particularly if it’s untreated, it can have an extensive effect on many areas of their life including their physical health, their job, and their relationships.
Addiction and Social Security Disability Benefits
There are a few different things people may question when it comes to addiction and social security disability benefits.
First, some people wonder if addiction is a disability in terms of it making you eligible for Social Security Disability benefits. The second question is whether you can be denied Social Security disability benefits if you have a drug addiction or alcohol abuse problem.
So, let’s tackle these two subjects separately.
First, you can’t receive Social Security Disability benefits because of addiction only. In general, if you have a disability that’s caused or made worse by addiction, then you probably will not be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits either.
Some people may think that because their addiction to drugs or alcohol prevents them from maintaining employment that they are then eligible for Social Security, but this isn’t in and of itself the case.
Until 2017, there was a Social Security listing for substance addiction that you could be eligible for if you showed specific changes in behavior or physical health due to ongoing abuse of either an illegal drug or a prescription drug. At that time, the qualifying changes included:
- Brain damage
- Liver damage
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Anxiety disorder
- Major clinical depression
- Personality disorder
Disability Caused By Addiction
While there isn’t a listing for addiction as of 2018, it is still possible to qualify for disability benefits if you meet the criteria of the above-listed impairments caused by substance abuse.
Additionally, if you have been diagnosed medically with drug addiction, for the most part, the Social Security Administration can’t count this against you as they determine if you are eligible for disability.
At the same time if the SSA finds that your illness would end if you stop abusing drugs, then they can deny your claim. If the SSA determines that you stopping drugs wouldn’t improve your condition, you would potentially be granted disability benefits.
To make these determinations, the SSA performs what’s called a drug/alcohol addiction (DAA) evaluation.
Specific things to know about the DAA evaluation include the following:
- If someone makes a claim for disability benefits and it’s found that their use of drugs or alcohol is a relevant, contributing factor to the medication condition, they won’t get benefits based on that specific condition or impairment
- The SSA will ask whether or not a claimant’s impairment might get better without drugs or alcohol when making this determination.
- A doctor will write an opinion on the situation during the application process.
- It doesn’t necessarily matter if the use of drugs or alcohol caused the condition in the first place. For example, if someone’s alcohol abuse caused their liver damage, but it’s so severe that it’s irreversible regardless of whether or not they stop drinking, then the use of alcohol would be seen as immaterial or irrelevant.
Addiction and the Americans with Disabilities Act
Along with Social Security disability benefits, another reason you may wonder “is addiction a disability” is for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act or the ADA. In some cases, a person with a substance use disorder may be protected under the ADA.
Under this law, alcoholics and drug addicts are treated differently.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), someone who is an alcoholic is someone with a disability under the ADA. This means their employer is required by federal law to provide them consideration of accommodation if that person is qualified to perform essential functions of a job.
At the same time, an employer does have the right to discipline or terminate someone who is an alcoholic and whose alcohol use affects their job performance or behavior negatively, making them unqualified.
The ADA doesn’t protect people who are currently using drugs. However, there are some protections for addicts in recovery. The EEOC manual states that people who are drug addicts but are receiving treatment and no longer using drugs or who are in recovery are protected under the ADA against discrimination because of their past addiction to drugs.
If someone undergoes a drug test and it shows they are using illegal drugs, then they are no longer eligible for those ADA protections.
The Bottom Line
So, is addiction a disability? In most situations, no. Addiction is a disease, and while there are some federal employment protections, addiction in and of itself is not grounds to receive Social Security disability benefits. There are also steps employers can take in certain situations if employees are actively using drugs or alcohol and it affects their work performance.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Addiction Science.” July 2015. Accessed February 13, 2019.
Laurence, Bethany K. “Can You Get Disability If You’ve Used Drugs or Alcohol?” Disability Secrets. Accessed February 13, 2019.
Morton, David A. III, M.D. “Can You Get Social Security Disability Benefits If You Have Drug Addiction or Alcoholism?” Nolo. Accessed February 13, 2019.