Know your rights in recovery
Take a powerful step toward taking charge of your life
By Claire Parins
Federal and state laws protect from discrimination individuals who have substance use disorders, including those in treatment and many who are in recovery. That’s the good news. The bad news? Understanding who is covered and what these laws protect can be confusing at best.
If you’re worried that your past alcohol or drug addiction may affect whether you get that apartment, get a job and keep one or you feel you’ve been discriminated against and want to reach out for some help, read on. You’ll learn about who is covered by various nondiscrimination laws and under what kind of circumstances.
It’s Against the Law to Discriminate on the Basis of Disability
According to Sally Friedman, the legal director for the Legal Action Center in New York City, a variety of federal laws prohibit discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities. The federal laws that protect people with disabilities include The Americans with Disabilities Act, The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, The Fair Housing Act and The Workforce Investment Act.
Friedman says many states also have antidiscrimination laws that prohibit discrimination based on disability and help protect those in recovery. LAC has conveniently gathered a list of links to many states’ antidiscrimination laws at lac.org/index.php/lac/149#states
. If your state is not listed here, Friedman says you should Google your state’s name along with the phrase “human rights laws” to find out who to contact to ask about what state laws may apply to your situation.
According to information provided on the LAC’s website, it is very important to first understand what a disability is. Under state and federal law, you have a disability if you have a current physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity such as caring for yourself or working. You might also have a disability if you have a record of such impairment or are regarded as having an impairment.
Many courts have found that people in recovery for addiction have a disability because such courts recognize substance use disorders as impairments. But to be protected, you have to show that your addiction substantially limits (or limited in the past) a major life activity or that you are wrongly believed to have a substance use disorder.
The next key is in understanding what it means to discriminate. Discrimination means treating someone less favorably than someone else because he has or had a disability. Examples include firing someone because he had a drug problem in the past, making someone in treatment or recovery take regular drug tests when no one else in the workplace has to take one or refusing to rent an apartment to someone because he is in treatment or recovery.
If someone acts against you for reasons other than having a disability, however, it won’t be considered illegal discrimination, even if the disability causes the adverse action. For example, most judges would not rule you were subject to unlawful discrimination if, while in substance abuse treatment or recovery, you were denied a job for not meeting essential job requirements. A judge would also probably not rule you were discriminated against if you lost a job because you directly threatened the health or safety of others, even if your behavior was because of your addiction.
Who Is Not Protected
A number of people are not protected by the law. For example, those who are currently using illegal drugs are generally not protected under nondiscrimination laws, except that they may not be denied health services if they otherwise qualify for them.
If you have a criminal record, chances are the federal laws already described won’t help if your employer decides not to hire you because of your record. But there are some exceptions. Although no federal law directly prohibits employment discrimination based on a criminal record, in some cases such discrimination has been found by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and courts to be race discrimination. In addition, some state laws make it illegal to ask about arrests that did not lead to conviction, and others have blanket policies against hiring people with criminal histories.
If you are worried about whether a past conviction will affect employment or feel you’ve been discriminated against because of that conviction, you should research your state’s laws by contacting your state’s human right’s agency. You can also read about different state laws at the Legal Action Center’s website at lac.org/roadblocks-to-reentry
How to Respond to Violations of Your Rights
Discrimination for those in recovery is more common than many know, but there are a number of resources and places you can go to learn about what you can do if you feel you’ve been discriminated against.
If you are returning to work after treatment, embarking on a recovery program on your own or are looking for work and have a criminal record, be sure to check out the “Know Your Rights” brochure on the LAC’s website. The brochure provides details about the laws discussed in this article and outlines who is protected, what illegal discrimination is and what kinds of things employers, housing and other service providers can and cannot do.
The Partners for Recovery Initiative of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and LAC also created a five-part webinar series that addresses discrimination in employment, housing, government activities and services, as well as special issues faced by people in Medication Assisted Treatment.
Friedman says you can find the brochure, webinars and many other materials the LAC has to offer at lac.org/index.php/lac/149
Finally, if you believe you have been or are being subjected to illegal discrimination, you should immediately consult an attorney or seek assistance from the federal agency responsible for addressing discrimination complaints or administering the program or benefits at issue.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: 800-669-4000 (voice); 800-669-6820 (TTY); eeoc.gov/facts/howtofil.html
Medical Leave Rights (FMLA): U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division
Government Services, Programs and Activities
Contact the federal agency that gives financial assistance to, provides or regulates the program or activity in which you are involved. You can look up how to contact the agency in your local phone book or public library, or look for the agency’s website online.
Claire Parins is an editorial director for the American Bar Association’s Publishing Services Group and a regular contributor to RenewEveryDay.com.