Is OCD Classified as a Disability?
OCD is a painful, and sometimes debilitating, disorder. Those of us who live with OCD know how much its symptoms can get in the way of day-to-day life. When you’re at the height of an OCD spike, your need to perform compulsions may be severely interrupting your ability to work, maintain relationships, and otherwise participate in the world.
It might be so debilitating that you might be asking yourself, is my OCD a disability? And – perhaps more importantly – can I qualify for government disability benefits for my OCD?
In this guide, we’ll give you all the information you need to know about whether or not OCD is a disability, and how to apply for government benefits if your OCD is severely impairing your daily functioning.
What Is a Disability?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a disability as “any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them.”
Although the exact definition of a disability differs between organizations, the basic premise is the same: a disability is any condition, injury, or illness that prevents you from doing things that are easy for most other people (without a disability) to do.
The definition of what exactly constitutes a disability is complicated by the fact that often, it’s government agencies deciding whether or not you “officially” have a disability in the eyes of the law. That’s because people with disabilities are legally entitled to protections, workplace (and school) accommodations, and even financial assistance (if their disability prevents them from working).
Unfortunately, many countries are reluctant to grant people these legal rights. That means that even if life with a certain condition feels like a disability and is a disability in your subjective experience, it may not be recognized as one in the eyes of the law.
The American Disabilities Act (or ADA) provides the most well-known legal definition of what a disability is. This U.S. law protects anyone with a disability from being discriminated against and ensures that they have the same opportunities as people without a disability. Under the ADA, someone is considered disabled if they have “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, […] a history or record of such an impairment, or […] is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”
It goes without saying that people with disabilities deserve equal rights as people who are not disabled. It is necessary for society to make accommodations so that disabled people are able to get access to the same opportunities as non-disabled people.
Examples of Disabilities
Mental and physical disabilities can be caused by a multitude of different factors, from genetic conditions to temporary injury. An exhaustive list of conditions that can cause disability doesn’t exist, because a list like that would almost certainly leave out rare conditions or other illnesses that aren’t typically considered a disability (but which may become one, for some people).
Some examples of general categories of disabilities include:
- Birth conditions related to genes and/or chromosomes, including Down syndrome and muscular dystrophy
- Intellectual disabilities, like mental retardation or learning disorders
- Serious injuries, like traumatic brain injury or back injury
- Motor disabilities, like cerebral palsy or Parkinson’s disease
- Chronic physical diseases, including Sickle Cell disease, hemophilia, and epilepsy
- Temporary (curable) diseases, including cancer
- Blindness or vision loss
- Deafness or hearing loss
- Developmental conditions, like autism spectrum disorder
- Growth disorders, like dwarfism
- Neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and multiple sclerosis
- Mental illnesses, like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety
Again, this isn’t an exhaustive list of the different types of disabilities — in fact, it’s not even close. Any condition or disorder, if it causes severe impairment to someone’s daily functioning, could be considered a disability. The thing all disabilities have in common is that they all prevent someone from participating in the world (physically or socially) in the same way as someone without that condition.
Are Mental Illnesses Considered Disabilities?
When someone is developmentally disabled or has a physical disability, people quickly recognize their disability and agree that they are entitled to extra protections and needed support. Although it’s changing little by little, it’s harder to receive societal (or government) approval that mental illnesses can cause just as much impairment in someone’s functioning as a physical disability can.
Mental Illness Is, Legally, a Disability
Under the ADA, the law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination, mental illness is considered a disability. The law specifically states that a disability is “a physical or mental impairment” that limits someone’s functioning in daily activities.
Mental illnesses, even common ones like clinical depression and anxiety disorders, are considered mental impairments. If they’re severe enough to limit your functioning in one or more areas of your life, it is considered a disability.
Whether or not a condition (whether it’s a mental illness or a physical impairment) is protected as a disability usually depends not on the diagnosis itself, but on how much it interrupts the person’s functioning. Someone with a mental or physical condition who’s still able to work, have healthy relationships, and take care of themselves may not qualify as a disabled person. If your condition or mental illness gets in the way of you doing these things, though, then you are considered disabled.
For example, if your depression or anxiety prevents you from being able to maintain employment or a relationship, your disorder should qualify as a disability, even in the eyes of the government.
In general, schizophrenia and personality disorders (like borderline personality disorder) are said to be the mental illnesses that cause the highest level of disability.
Stigma and Mental Health Disability
Unfortunately, because of ongoing stigma against mental illnesses as “real” disorders, it’s often much harder to get approved for government disability benefits for mental illnesses than it is for physical illnesses.
Someone who can’t go to work because they’ve had their leg amputated and is in a wheelchair is likely to be seen as a person with a legitimate disability. Someone who can’t go to work because their clinical depression doesn’t allow them to get out of the bed, on the other hand, isn’t usually seen as someone with a legitimate disability. They may even be seen as “lazy” or “attention-seeking” in the eyes of society.
As far as we’ve come in terms of mental health awareness, we still have a long way to go. For mental illness to be truly protected as a disability, we need to recognize the extent to which even common disorders like depression and anxiety can get in the way of a person’s day-to-day functioning.
When Is OCD Considered a Disability?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is classified as a disability under the American Disability Act (ADA), among other protections and laws. Does that mean that if you’re diagnosed with OCD, you’re automatically a “disabled person”? Well, the answer to that isn’t so black-and-white.
Again, whether or not a mental or a physical illness qualifies as a disability often doesn’t depend on the diagnosis, but the severity of symptoms and their impact on daily living. This is true for OCD, as well. One person with OCD could be considered to be a fully-functioning and employed member of society, while someone else with OCD could be considered to have a disability. It depends on how much OCD affects someone’s life, not the OCD diagnosis itself.
For example, let’s say Sarah has lived with OCD since she was a child. Her parents were supportive, and got her access to evidence-based OCD treatment from an early age. As an adult, Sarah takes daily medication and goes to therapy. Of course, OCD being what it is, Sarah isn’t completely free from obsessions and compulsions as an adult. She needs to fight her urges to return home to make sure she turned off the stove when she’s on her way to work.
Once in a blue moon, she gives into the urge, which makes her a few minutes late to work. For the most part, though, Sarah is able to use the tools she learned in ERP to sit with the anxiety and resist her checking compulsion urges. She’s a successful manager at her job, and is in a happy marriage. She has OCD, but she’s learned how to manage its symptoms.
Jorge also lives with OCD. Jorge’s parents didn’t have a good understanding of mental illness, and his symptoms have only increased as he’s gotten older. When Jorge was in high school, he was absent at least one day a week because his compulsions stopped him from leaving his house. He felt the need to close the door until it felt “just right,” which often ended up taking hours. This eventually led him to drop out of high school.
As an adult, Jorge has hopped around from job to job, but he typically ends up in trouble with his employer because of his tardiness. His “just right” compulsions haven’t gotten any better — in fact, they’ve gotten worse. Jorge often finds himself spending hours every day repeatedly closing doors and windows and rearranging everything in his house until it feels complete. He’s had a couple of short-term relationships, but his romantic partners usually end up leaving him because of his intense anxiety and compulsions.
Sarah, by most standards, wouldn’t be considered a person living with a disability. Yes, she’s diagnosed with OCD, but it doesn’t affect her life in any seriously harmful ways. That doesn’t mean that living with OCD is easy for Sarah – OCD is never easy – but her symptoms are well-managed enough to the point where they don’t impair her daily functioning.
Jorge, on the other hand, could be said to have a disability. His OCD symptoms have caused him significant impairment, most notably in his ability to work and to maintain relationships. This impairment is what makes Jorge’s OCD a disability, when Sarahs’ OCD probably isn’t.
This isn’t to say that either Jorge or Sarah would or would not qualify for government benefits or financial assistance for their OCD. And both of them should, in theory, qualify for protection from discrimination under the American Disabilities Act.
This is what makes the question of “Is OCD a disability?” so complicated. However, in general, OCD does constitute a disability, and is eligible for protections and benefits under the ADA (and similar disability rights laws).
Benefits of Qualifying for a Disability
At first glance, whether or not OCD is classified as a disability may seem like an unimportant question. However, if you have severe OCD that disrupts your daily functioning, it could make a big difference to meet the “qualifications” of having a disability.
People with a recognized disability are often eligible to receive assistance from their local government or non-profit organizations. If you have a disability of any kind, including severe OCD, you’re entitled to this kind of help.
What kind of assistance you’re eligible for depends on where you live and what resources are available. Explaining the process of qualification for every country in the world is beyond the scope of this article. However, here are the steps you need to take to qualify for benefits through 1. the United States Social Security Administration (SSA) and the United Kingdom Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Hopefully, this helps you to navigate the process and start receiving the assistance you deserve.
United States Disability Benefits
The following are the steps you need to take to qualify for benefits through the United States Social Security Administration. This department is responsible for dispensing two types of assistance for disabled people: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Both are meant to relieve some of the financial stress that is caused by your OCD.
Step 1: Figure out if you qualify
Of course, you’ll have to prove your disability to the SSA to qualify for benefits. First, though, you need to make sure you’re even eligible. To be eligible to receive SSDI, you must have worked long enough to have accumulated enough work credits. You can learn more detailed information about how long you need to have worked on the SSA website.
There is no work credit requirement to qualify for SSI. There are income eligibility requirements, however; you won’t qualify for SSI if you’re employed (because this, presumably, demonstrates that your disability isn’t severe enough to keep you from making money).
Step 2: Prove that you have a disability
Of course, even if you have the work credits and are unemployed, you won’t qualify for either type of benefit if you don’t really have a disability. OCD can be debilitating at times, and there is no minimizing the amount of pain it causes to your life. But the SSA has specific guidelines that help their employees to figure out whether or not a disorder qualifies as a disability.
The publication that’s used to determine whether or not someone’s OCD (or any other disorder) qualifies as a disability is called the Blue Book. In this book, OCD is classified under anxiety-related disorders. For your OCD to qualify as a disability, you must be able to prove that you experience symptoms of OCD that cause you severe distress.
Additionally, you must be able to prove that your OCD is severe enough to significantly impair your life in multiple areas. You need to prove that your OCD symptoms make it so you’re not able to engage in daily activities (like basic self-care or work), hurt your social life, or cause you to be unable to concentrate.
This is a very basic description of what you need to be able to prove that your OCD is severe enough to be considered a disability by the SSA. For more detailed information, read section 12.06 of the SSA Blue Book.
Step 3: Apply for benefits
If you feel confident that you can prove that your OCD meets these requirements, you can apply for disability benefits online. Fill out all the required forms and applications with as much detail as you can.
Unfortunately, even if your OCD is truly causing you significant distress, it’s often hard to be accepted to receive disability benefits. Many disability benefit applications are denied in the U.S., especially for mental health reasons. If you are denied, then you can file for an appeal.
United Kingdom Disability Benefits
In the United Kingdom, people with disabilities, including mental health conditions like OCD, are eligible for financial assistance called a Personal Independence Payment (PIP). The PIP has been gradually replacing the Disability Living Allowance, which used to be the benefit for people living with disability. You might also be eligible for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) if your disability has gotten in the way of your job. Follow these steps to apply for government benefits in the UK.
Step 1: Figure out if you’re eligible
To be eligible to receive PIP benefits, you must be over the age of 16 but under State Pension age (you can check your State Pension age here). It doesn’t matter whether you’re working or unemployed to be eligible for PIP. Usually, you need to be living in England, Scotland, or Wales to qualify for PIP — Northern Ireland has different rules for PIP.To be eligible for ESA, you must have worked or been self-employed, and have made around 2 to 3 years worth of National Insurance contributions. You also must have a disability that gets in the way of your work.
Step 2: Prove that you have a disability
To qualify for PIP, you must have a disability that causes you to have daily living difficulties (like difficulties with basic self-care, money management, or social relationships) or mobility difficulties (challenges in getting around). To determine whether or not your OCD qualifies for PIP benefits, you will be assessed by an independent health professional.
To qualify for ESA, your disability must affect the amount you can work.
Mental health conditions, including OCD, qualify as a disability under the Equality Act of 2010 when they have a “long-term effect on your normal day-to-day activity”.
Step 3: Make a claim with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)
To apply for PIP, you need to call the DWP (or apply by post). You can find detailed information about where and how to call on the PIP website. You can apply for ESA online. After you put in a claim, you will have to complete more assessments so that the government can evaluate to what extent your disability affects your ability to work. If the DWP decides to deny your claim, you can ask for mandatory reconsideration.
Is OCD a Disability? It’s Complicated
At the end of the day, we can’t give you a clear yes-or-no answer to whether or not OCD is considered a disability, because it isn’t so black-and-white. Yes, OCD can qualify as a disability, even legally speaking. Whether or not it is, however, is a much more complex issue that often depends on your individual situation.
For more information about living with a disability and disability rights, look into the following resources:
American Civil Liberties Union
Social Security Administration Disability Benefits
If your OCD is causing you such significant impairment that you think it might be a disability, know that you’re not alone. OCD is a common mental illness, but it’s a treatable one. With the right interventions, you can manage your OCD symptoms and live a life that’s free from the anxiety and fear this disorder brings. Impulse Therapy is always here to accompany you on your recovery journey.