The Americans With Disabilities Act and other disability benefit laws provide insight into whether alcoholism and drug addiction are disabilities.
Alcoholism and drug addiction are complicated conditions that can damage many areas of a person’s life, including their finances, career and family. While there may be some aspect of choice in taking a substance for the first time, addiction is considered a disease in the medical community. This is due to how the brain reacts to these substances and how the progressive, chronic nature of addiction develops.
This leaves many people wondering whether alcoholism and drug addiction are disabilities. The following overview covers current disability laws, how addictions are categorized and what benefits are available for people struggling with drugs or alcohol.
The U.S. government offers benefits for people with certain disabilities through the Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs. In order to receive these financial benefits, an individual must meet certain criteria.
If a person has paid into Social Security through their taxes, disability benefits can be paid to the individual and some of their family members. The Supplemental Security Income program pays financial benefits based on the determination of need. When someone applies for these programs, they must provide medical and personal information that officials use to determine eligibility.
Before 1996, people with a drug or alcohol addiction could be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. However, Congress amended the law, and individuals can no longer receive disability benefits simply for having an addiction. You can still apply to receive disability benefits for health problems and injuries related to your addiction. However, you must prove to the government that these disabilities would exist even if you didn’t have an addiction.
If the Social Security Administration (SSA) determines that your addiction contributed to your disability, you won’t receive benefits. This doesn’t mean that SSA will refuse benefits in cases where someone uses drugs and alcohol. Rather, a disability must occur independently of substance abuse for a person to be eligible for benefits.
Consider these examples of times when a disability claim would likely be denied:
- A person has chronic back pain alongside an addiction, but the back pain on its own does not prevent the person from continuing to work
- A person is struggling with addiction and has hip osteoarthritis, but the hip condition is not severe
However, a person may have conditions that are independent of an addiction and result in disability. In these cases, a person could be approved for disability benefits even if they have an addiction. These are examples of times when someone with addiction would likely qualify for benefits:
- The person has had a severe intellectual disability since birth
- The person has chronic kidney disease inherited from parents
These individuals would likely qualify because their disabilities would still exist without the presence of an addiction.
Substance Addiction Disorder
The SSA recognizes a disability category called substance addiction disorder, which acknowledges the fact that chronic alcohol abuse can result in severe disability. With this category, a person can receive benefits for an underlying disability caused by alcohol addiction, but not for the addiction itself.
To be eligible for benefits under this category, applicants must show significant physical or behavioral changes from alcohol abuse. Additionally, the changes must affect the central nervous system. Some examples of conditions that are caused by alcohol addiction and meet the criteria for disability benefits include:
- Personality disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Organic brain syndrome
- Nerve and liver damage
Alcoholism and the ADA
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines alcoholism and drug addiction as disabilities. Since alcohol addiction is considered a mental impairment, employers cannot take action against an employee solely because of this disability. It also means that employees cannot be disciplined just because they have an alcohol addiction, and there must be reasonable accommodations made for the disability. Failure to provide accommodations to someone with alcohol addiction would be illegal discrimination under the ADA.
People who attend rehab typically need to take time off work, which is another situation covered by the ADA. According to the ADA, an employer would have to grant time off from work for treatment for certain employees if it does not create undue hardship for the employer.
Although the ADA identifies alcohol addiction as a disability, it does not excuse someone from coming to work under the influence or failing to show up due to drinking. Employees must continue following workplace policies and can still be reprimanded for violating policies, even if they struggle with alcoholism.
Drug Addiction and the ADA
The ADA also addresses drug addiction but treats it differently than alcoholism. For example, the ADA recognizes alcohol addiction as a disability and provides protections, whether the addiction is current or in the past. However, the ADA only offers protections for drug addiction if a person is in recovery and not currently abusing drugs.
This means that an employer cannot fire or refuse to hire someone because they disclose a past addiction. However, a person who is currently abusing drugs like cocaine would not be protected under the ADA.
The Bottom Line
While drug addiction and alcoholism are considered diseases, a person cannot receive disability benefits simply because of an addiction. If a person shows signs of a disability but would not be disabled if they stopped using substances, they will be denied disability benefits. In this sense, addiction on its own is not a disability.
On the other hand, the ADA does recognize alcoholism and drug addiction as disabilities. While it does provide protection for current alcoholism, it does not protect people who are currently abusing drugs.
If you or someone you love is struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, The Recovery Village is here to help. The full continuum of care offered at our facilities is able to address addiction as well as any co-occurring mental health disorders that may be present. Contact us today to learn about treatment programs that can work well for your needs.
ADA National Network. “The ADA, Addiction, and Recovery.” 2019. Accessed September 12, 2021.
Laurence, Bethany K. “Disability Determination for Alcoholism.” AllLaw, Accessed September 12, 2021.
Social Security. “Overview of our disability programs.” Accessed September 12, 2021.
Social Security. “Policy Interpretation Ruling.” February 20, 2013. Accessed September 12, 2021. Social Security Office of Policy. “Follow-up of Former Drug Addict and Alcoholic Beneficiaries.” October 2001. Accessed September 12, 2021.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.