Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Americans with Disabilities Act

CPTSD Foundation
6 min readAug 1, 2022

Millions of people are affected by disabilities every day. When people think of a disability, they often think of people in wheelchairs or who are blind. However, many disabilities cannot be seen.

This article will cover complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) and how it is affected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What is CPTSD?

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder forms when people experience ongoing and inescapable relational trauma, such as child abuse or neglect. The pain suffered by abuse or neglect leaves scars because it was repeated and usually, but not always, perpetrated by a family member or friend.

The National Council estimates for Behavioral Health that 70% of adults in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic incident in their lifetime. Also, 33% of children have been exposed to community violence. This exposure to violence and trauma causes the child to grow into an adult with CPTSD.

Adults with CPTSD often experience symptoms different from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as amnesia, chronic mistrust, chronic physical pain, dissociation, debilitating flashbacks, body memories, anxiety, and severe problems regulating volatile emotions. These adult survivors also develop concurrent diagnoses such as depression, toxic shame, auto-immune disease, and other life-altering symptoms.

Another severe impact of CPTSD is isolation, as people who suffer from it isolate themselves to cope with their overwhelming sense of unsafety. The isolation is meant to keep the survivors safe, but it interferes with their ability to form relationships, leading to despair and suicidal thoughts and actions.

CPTSD: An Invisible Disability

The word disability has many meanings depending on who you are and if you have one. It is vital to note that because a person lives with a disability does not necessarily mean they are on ‘disability.’ Many people can work despite their limiting conditions and do so successfully in either part-time or full-time capacities.

A disability does not mean that the person is less than anyone else or weaker. Some disabilities are easy to see, such as a blind person and their service animal or someone who uses sign language to communicate. However, some disabilities are not visible to the general public. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is one of them.

The definition of a disability as given by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 states a person with a disability:

“Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such an impairment or is regarded as having such an impairment.”

They also say that:

“A person is considered to have a disability if he or she has difficulty performing certain functions (seeing, hearing, talking, walking, climbing stairs and lifting and carrying), or has difficulty performing activities of daily living, or has difficulty with certain social roles (doing schoolwork for children, working at a job and around the house).”

These statements describe 20% of Americans, meaning many live with mental health conditions such as complex post-traumatic stress disorder and have disabilities unseen by the public.

Invisible disabilities are also covered under the ADA.

What Does the ADA Say?

Luckily, the ADA is a broad provision that protects people with disabilities, be it physical or mental, from discrimination. Besides the different visible disabilities, people who have problems with:

* Learning
* Reading
* Concentrating
* Thinking
* Communicating
* Working
* Caring for yourself
* Problems interacting with others

The person’s condition does not need to be severe to qualify for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, the impairment must significantly impact a person’s ability to do activities compared to others in society.

Although this piece has spoken about the ADA covering mental health conditions, this did not come about until the ADA was amended in 2008. The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act became law in 2009 for people with mental health conditions added. The ADA has five titles, including I, II, III, IV, and V. All the following information is found at this link.

Title I Employment. Designed to aid people with disabilities, Title I was created to assist people with physical or mental problems to access and have the same opportunities as those without disabilities. This means employers must provide reasonable accommodations to applicants or employees living with a disability as they do others. Reasonable accommodations mean employers must modify or adjust the work environment to enable people with disabilities to participate in the application or job process. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces this title, which states that employers with fifteen or more employees must comply.

In the case of a disability such as complex post-traumatic stress disorder, this title may mean creating a quiet office space.

Title II (State and Local Government). This Title of the ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals because they have a disability.
The title implies all state and local government departments and agencies and any other arrangement or special purpose in state or local government districts. This includes systems that receive funding from federal agencies and cover all entities that provide public transportation.

If you have CPTSD, this provision might mean you can have a service animal with you and ride on public transportation. However, there are restrictions on the type of animal and other rules. It is vital to check with the ADA to see what these rules are.

Title III. (Public Accommodations). This Title prohibits private places of public accommodation from discriminating against someone with a disability. These places include restaurants, hotels, doctor’s offices, stadiums, etc. The Title sets the minimum standards for accessibility for alterations and new construction to make the building accessible.

In the case of CPTSD, this may mean constructing temporary walls around a workspace to aid in providing a calming and quiet place to work. However, the demands for accommodations must be reasonable.

Title IV (Telecommunications). This Title requires telephone and internet companies to provide nationwide systems that allow people with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate over the telephone.

This may or may not directly affect those living with complex trauma unless you are also visually or auditorily disabled.

Title V (Miscellaneous Provisions). The last Title has a variety of provisions related to the ADA, including a prohibition against retaliation or coercion, illegal use of drugs, and attorney’s fees. It also provides a list of conditions that are not considered disabilities.

The Americans with Disability act covers people with difficulties linked to their emotional problems, including complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

The ADA celebrated its 31st anniversary on July 26, 2022.

Ending Our Time Together

Discrimination is a terrible thing. It separates people by their differences and makes life even harder for those who have a disability.

Although many believe that the ADA is only for those with visible disabilities, they are wrong. The ADA also covers those with disabilities that are not easily noticed or seen by the public. People with a heart condition or a mental health problem such as complex post-traumatic disorder are also covered.

If you work in an environment that is not suitable to help you with handling your mental health, then speak to your employer and ask for what you need. If it is a reasonable request, they are required by law to accommodate you.

No matter your condition, you are guaranteed by law that you will receive no discrimination in one of the most critical places in your life, work.

“Happiness is not out there for us to find. The reason that it’s not our there is that it’s inside us.” — Sonja Lyubomirsky

“Every person on this earth is full of great possibilities that can be realized through imagination, effort, and perseverance.” — Scott Barry Kaufmann

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CPTSD Foundation

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.