The Paradox of Personality: Mental Illness, Employment Discrimination, and the Americans With Disabilities Act

78 Pages Posted: 17 May 2006 Last revised: 9 Nov 2008

See all articles by Deirdre M. Smith

Deirdre M. Smith

University of Maine School of Law


Both medicine and the law devote considerable concern to drawing lines, that is, to classifying and making distinctions. In medicine, such line-drawing occurs when a person is designated healthy or ill, normal or disordered. In the law, such line-drawing determines who does and does not bear legal responsibility for a given situation. This Article reviews the demarcation drawn by psychiatry and the courts between disfavored personality and mental illness, a dichotomy not based upon empirical science and therefore, wholly susceptible to social construction and implementation. While society may pathologize noxious personalities, thus making them disabilities, it is loath to extend disability-based legal protections to people with such personalities. Specifically, the application of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) to persons with impaired personalities is regarded by some as improperly removing or excusing their responsibility for their own behavior, while improperly assigning responsibility to the people who must interact with them, notably employers. Thus the invocation of personality in disability discrimination claims implicates a collision between societal and psychiatric attitudes towards certain psychological conditions and the law. In the case law developed under the ADA, courts have erred on the side of a restrictive view of the meaning of mental illness by employing approaches that ensure that personality issues are eliminated from ADA analyses. This trend has swept so broadly, the Article argues, as to render the ADA a limited tool both for remedying past discrimination and for compelling society to examine the place of people of with mental illness in the workplace.

Keywords: disability, mental illness, psychiatry, personality disorder, discrimination, employment, Americans with Disabilities Act

JEL Classification: J71

Suggested Citation

Smith, Deirdre M., The Paradox of Personality: Mental Illness, Employment Discrimination, and the Americans With Disabilities Act. George Mason University Civil Rights Law Journal, Vol. 17, p. 79, 2006. Available at SSRN:

Deirdre M. Smith (Contact Author)

University of Maine School of Law ( email )

246 Deering Avenue
Portland, ME 04102
United States
207-780-4370 (Phone)
207-780-4541 (Fax)


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