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The general public is not nearly as sympathetic to disabling mental health conditions as they are to disabling physical conditions. That’s the prejudice that those who suffer from mental health conditions are up against.

I was reminded of this in a recent hearing.

Our client had a severe mental health condition, and had been out of work for several weeks to seek treatment of this condition – she was heavily medicated and under the frequent care of mental health professionals for the entire time. When her management thought she was out of work too long, they fired her.

Setting aside the fact that our position was that management violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by denying her FMLA request and firing her, it was clear to us that the motivating factor was the client’s mental health condition.

On the stand, her first and second line supervisor both testified that they knew she had the serious mental health condition.

They both testified that they knew she was out of work to get treatment for that condition.

They both testified that they knew she could not perform at least one of the essential functions of her job during the time she was seeking treatment.

But, when asked if they saw her condition as a disability, both said no.

When the first witness (the client’s immediate supervisor) said she didn’t view our client as disabled despite knowledge of the above facts of her mental health condition, I violated the cardinal rule of Cross-Examination, and asked this question: Why?

The answer didn’t really shock me all that much, unfortunately. I’m paraphrasing here but the witness told us she didn’t view our client’s mental health condition as disabling “because I have friends with this mental health condition and they’re not disabled.”[Insert sound of screeching record here]

Did she have any medical experience? No.

Did she have any medical training? No.

Did she have any medical expertise whatsoever? No.

All she had was her narrow-minded belief that because her friend wasn’t disabled, that our client couldn’t be.

[This same supervisor, by the way, testified at great length about how benevolent she was to the disabled, listing example after example of how she had gone out of her way to help the disabled. After I got over my disgust with her “I-have-friends-that-are-black-so-I-can’t-be-a-racist” explanation, I realized that most, if not all, of her examples dealt with physical disabilities].

Mental health conditions are just as serious as physical disabilities. They are just as limiting – and in many ways more limiting – than physical disabilities. Yet society, as a general rule, shuns the mentally disabled.

Malingerers, weaklings, fakers, wimps…those are, unfortunately, the general public perceptions of those with mental health disorders. Though we never went deep enough in the cross to explore this, I would be willing to bet that this manager – whether she would admit it or not – viewed our client as ‘weak’ because she had a mental health disorder.

The case settled midway through the hearing – hopefully the Defendants were motivated to settle because they finally realized that the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act were passed into law for the very purpose of protecting individuals with disabilities – even those with mental health disabilities – from this type of bigotry.

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Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative.

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