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Is Substance Use Disorder a Disability?

SUD, also called substance use disorder, is often considered a traumatic and difficult disorder to treat or live with. Many medical and addiction specialists recognize substance use disorder (SUD) as a complex condition that affects the brain and behavior. Whether it qualifies as a disability depends on the legal and policy frameworks in place. In many cases, it does.

SUD and the Americans With Disabilities Act

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says people with disabilities will be protected from discrimination. This protection includes helping people with a history of substance use disorder or those who are actively in recovery. In the context of the ADA, substance use disorder is considered a disability.

However, it's important to note that not all jurisdictions or legal frameworks define substance use disorder in the same way. In some cases, the classification of SUD as a disability may be subject to specific conditions or limitations.

Legal definitions may vary, and it's crucial to consult local laws to understand how disability laws are enforced under different jurisdictions.

What the Medical Profession Says About SUD and Disability

From a medical perspective, substance use disorder is a diagnosable condition with specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The medical community emphasizes the importance of viewing SUD as a health condition that requires comprehensive treatment and support. This approach helps more people get help than in the past when medicine often stigmatized people with the disorder.

The acknowledgment of substance use disorder as a disability has implications for how individuals with SUD are treated in the modern world.

People with disabilities have protections in various contexts, including employment, education, and healthcare. Legal protections are in place to ensure that individuals with SUD are not discriminated against and have the same rights and opportunities as those without this condition.

This means they can be treated and legally should be able to take time off for treatment and schedule around 12-step support groups, for example.

Substance Use Disorder, Stigma, and Disability

Addiction is a disease of the brain, according to the FDA. Despite the legal recognition of substance use disorder as a disability, people still have attitudes and misconceptions about addiction that can contribute to stigma.

Community organizations often promote advocacy efforts to change perceptions so people can get the help they need.

Emphasizing that individuals with SUD deserve compassion, understanding, and access to appropriate treatment rather than judgment or exclusion is vital in every community.

Legally, substance use disorder is considered a disability under certain circumstances, especially in the context of anti-discrimination laws like the ADA. Some interpretations of the law are up for debate, and if you need help interpreting the law, you may need to speak with an attorney if you experience discrimination.

One thing is for sure: efforts are ongoing to address the stigma associated with SUD and ensure that people with the disorder get the support and understanding they need.

What Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder Can Be Disabling?

Substance use disorder (SUD) can have profound and debilitating effects on various aspects of an individual's life. While many people may recover, others may struggle to have normal lives due to the severity of their disease.

Without treatment, it can be hard to function while addicted to drugs.

Here are some of the most significant and common challenges associated with SUD:

  • Physical Health Decline: Substance abuse can lead to severe physical health problems. Depending on the substance involved, individuals may experience damage to vital organs, cardiovascular issues, respiratory problems, and compromised immune function. Some people end up on the streets with a lack of sanitation and an inability to take care of themselves, increasing the risk of infectious diseases. These issues can lead to chronic illness and physical disability.
  • Mental Health Impact: SUD often coexists with mental health disorders, creating a dual diagnosis situation. Substance use can exacerbate co-occurring mental health symptoms or trigger the onset of a new diagnosis. Anxiety, depression, psychosis, and cognitive impairments are among the mental health challenges associated with SUD. These, alongside SUD, also often cause disability.
  • Impaired Cognitive Function: Substance abuse can impair cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and decision-making. These issues can hinder an individual's ability to perform everyday tasks, affecting work, school, and personal responsibilities.
  • Social and Relationship Consequences: SUD can strain relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. People in the throes of addiction may experience social isolation, damaged interpersonal connections, and strained familial bonds. Trust issues often arise, contributing to a breakdown in social support networks.
  • Legal and Financial Problems: Engaging in substance abuse can lead to legal issues, including arrests, fines, and incarceration. Financial problems often accompany SUD, with people spending significant amounts on obtaining substances, legal fees, and dealing with the economic consequences of lost employment or decreased productivity.
  • Employment and Educational Challenges: SUD can significantly impact one's ability to maintain employment or pursue educational goals. Attendance issues, decreased productivity, and impaired job performance are common in individuals with substance use disorders. A person with substance issues can suffer from job loss, academic difficulties, and diminished career prospects.
  • Physical Dependence and Withdrawal: Many substances are addictive in a physical way. Ceasing use withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. Depending on the drug, they can be severe. Withdrawal can include physical discomfort, nausea, insomnia, and, in some cases, life-threatening symptoms. This cycle of dependence and withdrawal can perpetuate the substance use disorder.
  • Loss of Control: One defining characteristic of SUD is the loss of control over substance use. Despite negative consequences, a person with SUD may find it challenging to quit using substances. This lack of control can contribute to the chronic and relapsing nature of SUD.

Substance use disorder can affect people and their families in many ways.

The disease is multifaceted, affecting physical health, mental well-being, relationships, legal standing, and overall quality of life. Treatment and support are crucial for addressing these debilitating aspects and helping individuals regain control of their lives.

Getting Help for Substance Use Disorder

If you or a loved one is currently struggling with substance use, we're here to help. Get in touch to learn more about our programs.



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Mark G
Mark Gladden brings both personal and professional experience to his role as co-founder of Present Moments Recovery. Now in long-term recovery himself after struggling with addiction for years, Mark understands firsthand the challenges men face in achieving and maintaining sobriety. It was this insight, combined with a desire to help others, that led Mark to establish Present Moments Recovery.

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