Changing the Conversation About Mental Impairments—Sia on American Idol

American Idol and employment discrimination – in the same sentence?  In the same blog post??

Read the latest post by Amy Epstein Gluck

Artists, Singer, Spotlight, Microphone


So after a long hiatus, I’m watching the last season of Fox’s American Idol with my kids. After all, J. Lo and I are about the same age, and I’m always interested to see the outfits she can still get away with.

I’ve been particularly drawn to hopeful, soulful singer Dalton Rapattoni.

Recently, while a typical-for-Idol montage played, Dalton and his tearful mother recalled Dalton’s difficult and emotional childhood. They recounted his extreme mood swings from the highest of highs to suicidal thoughts … at age 9. Doctors diagnosed Dalton with bipolar disorder. Then last week, when pop singer Sia mentored the Idol hopefuls, she helped Dalton to connect with the lyrics of the song he’d sing by point blank asking:

“You’re bipolar?”

Dalton: “Yes.”

Sia: “Me too.”

Dalton (visibly shocked): “OH.” (mic drop)

(Greek chorus offstage: “OH!”)


It was a powerful moment because, as I wrote about here, we often stigmatize those with psychiatric disorders.


According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, bipolar disorder is a common mental illness that causes dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to think clearly. The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) protects employees with mental health impairments from workplace discrimination. The ADA requires employers with more than 15 employees to provide reasonable accommodation to a qualified employee or job applicant with a disability that substantially limits one or more major life activity—physical or mental—or who has a record of a disability. A disabled individual who is qualified under the ADA can perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation.

But what’s a “major life activity”? Moodiness can’t be a major life activity can it?

You betcha.

While the EEOC advises there is no exhaustive list, activities such as learning, thinking, concentrating, interacting with other people, and working are all major life activities within the meaning of the ADA.


Due to the stigma of some common mental health disabilities like bipolar disorder, oftentimes employees don’t request a reasonable accommodation until it is too late, i.e., after their performance has suffered or they’ve been fired. Likewise, employers may not always view a request for a reasonable accommodation with the gravitas it deserves from a highly moody employee.

What’s an employer to do?

Just like Dalton and Sia, bring it out in the open.


Here are some tips:

1.  While government contractors are required to do so, all    employers should take the opportunity to offer employees the opportunity to self-identify with a disability.


  1. You should determine whether or not an employee requires an accommodation. You should actually talk to the employee about this. We call this “engaging in an interactive discussion.” Should you consult a lawyer for this discussion? Sure, absolutely: never hurts.


  1. If the disability is a mental health impairment like bipolar disorder, get an understanding of how the disability affects the employee’s ability to do the job.


  1. Provide the accommodation – if it does not create an undue burden.


What do you get in return? Better performance, for sure. But, more important than that, by allowing an employee to avoid the feeling of a stigma or penalty, and providing an accommodation for a mental health impairment like bipolar disorder, you are less likely to get that itty bitty Charge of Discrimination Notice from the EEOC.

By Amy Epstein Gluck



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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]