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Why I Call My ADHD a Disability, and Why That's OK

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I’ve had ADHD my whole life, but I haven’t always had a healthy attitude about it. That of course implies I do have a healthy take on it now, which may seem counterintuitive, given how resentful I’ve been about my experience with this disorder in the past. However, learning to acknowledge the substantial obstacles my disability poses has been crucial to my mental well-being now, as a young adult; equally critical has been viewing my ADHD as a disability at all.

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Growing up, I made every effort to disassociate myself from the identity “disabled.” I saw the students with intellectual disabilities in my high school forcibly sequestered from their classmates and required to take “special classes,” and I did everything in my power to prevent that from being my fate. Looking back on my teenage MO about disability, I’m profoundly remorseful. My only excuse is I was terrified of not having intelligent friends and of not getting to go away to college. I realize that doesn’t make it right, though.

Anyway, something happened to me after high school, something game-changing, and not in a good way: My ADHD worsened. I found myself less and less able to be completely productive for the entire time my medication was in effect each day, and when I was productive, I read, wrote and even thought far more slowly than I had in the past. I now know this was because my wild hormonal years had come to an end: As I’ve explained before, the higher your level of estrogen, the more dopamine you have, and the more dopamine you have, the less ADHD you are; with the end of adolescence, my estrogen levels returned to normal, and as a result, my ADHD severity soared. However, I refused to accept this; for years I attempted to compensate for my increasingly obvious shortcomings. Finally in grad school, I learned to acknowledge the reality of my limitations, and not tell myself if I just tried a little harder or cared a bit more, I’d be able to perform at the level of my neurotypical counterparts. I eventually realized that just wasn’t in the cards.

OK, but is ADHD a disability? It depends on who you ask. The Learning Disabilities Association of America, for instance, doesn’t classify ADHD as a learning disability. On the other hand, it is theoretically possible to qualify for disability benefits in the U.S. if you have ADHD, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits companies with 15 or more employees from discriminating against disabled workers, requiring these companies to make accommodations for such workers.

As Dr. Carl Sherman writes in an article in ADDitude,

“Legally, “disability” means a physical or mental condition that significantly limits a major life activity –– in this case, work. So the key question is how profoundly you’re affected by ADHD. If your symptoms are well controlled, you probably aren’t disabled, in the legal sense. But if distractibility, poor time management, or other symptoms make it hard for you to work, you may be legally disabled.”

Distractibility, poor time management, and other symptoms do make it hard for me to work; still, that’s only part of the reason I refer to my ADHD as a disability. If you show a reluctance to call yourself a person with a disability, that makes it seem like being disabled is a cause for shame, as though you believe all people with disabilities, from amputees to Aspies, should regret being who they are. Regardless of my take on my ADHD, I definitely don’t feel that way. I mean, you can’t help the way you are born or what may happen to you by chance over the course of your life. And now that I think about it, the reason we shouldn’t feel ashamed of our disabilities is not that they’re beyond our control; rather, we should feel unashamed of our disabilities because there’s nothing shameful about them.

I think of my ADHD as disabling. But some people don’t just cope with being disabled; they wear their disabilities as badges of honor. And while I may never reach that level of self-acceptance, I’m proud to have something in common with those who do. When I refer to myself as disabled, I know I’m in good company.


This story originally appeared on

Getty image by Professor25.

Originally published: April 10, 2018
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