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Daytona State case proves we need more work on the disability of addiction

News-Journal - 2/18/2021

The story of the professor who’s suing Daytona State College for firing him after he “fell to the ground in an inebriated state” in a college parking lot near his vehicle seems custom-built for the “isn’t it outrageous” crowd. Kenneth Thorson, who taught anatomy, physiology and biology, claims the college violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because officials knew he was addicted to alcohol and fired him “due solely” to that disability.

We’re not going to get into the more salacious details of the events of the Feb. 25, 2020, episode that preceded Thorson’s firing. Suffice it to say that college officials appear to have ample reason to believe Thorson was drunk on campus – in direct violation of DSC’s policies, which prohibit even the possession of drugs or alcohol while on the college’s property. Most people who spoke to The News-Journal’s Mark Harper about the case didn’t think Thorson had much of a shot at prevailing.

But the case illustrates areas where more guidance and better options for people struggling with addiction are needed.

First, Thorson was right to say that alcoholism counts as a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Americans are slowly awakening to the reality that addiction is a disease – one with significant, measurable mental and physical effects that can make it difficult for an addict to regulate their behavior.

But the ADA is not a get-out-of-trouble-free card. The law is clear: Employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for someone who needs them. That single word – “reasonable” – looks like a major point for people like Rhonda Harvey, chief operating officer of SMA Healthcare, the area’s largest substance-abuse and mental illness treatment provider. “It’s scary for employers,” she says. “Who’s going to judge what’s reasonable and what’s not?”

Once a complaint is filed, the answer is obvious: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hears these cases. It’s often a tough call, which is why we’d like to see the U.S. Department of Labor continue to refine its guidelines. Employers – including those who earnestly and consistently try to comply with the law – could use some statutory clarity to keep them, for the most part, out of court.

But many of them are caught in a tough situation. Communities often lack the resources to deal with substance abuse and mental illness – so even if an employee wants to enter addiction treatment, help can be hard to find. That’s particularly true in a state like Florida, which usually ranks close to the bottom – and sometimes dead last – on addiction and mental-health treatment services. Gov. Ron DeSantis has recommended $31 million in mental-health funding. The Legislature should approve at least that much.

More: DeSantis administration shakeup: DCF secretary resigns, new leaders named at DCF and AHCA

The last barrier is one of stigma. Lawsuits like this one aside, the reality is that most people who struggle with addiction or mental illness are hesitant to take advantage of the ADA’s protections. They’re afraid of suffering repercussions in the workplace, even if their disability doesn’t hinder their performance or lead to behavior that is dangerous or embarrassing to their employer. Breaking down those barriers will be tough – in a 2019 study, 50 percent of Americans didn’t believe addiction constituted a real disability – so it needs constant attention.

Cases like Thorson’s don’t help. But they do show us, as a society, where we should do a better job of recognizing disabilities, establishing clear boundaries and making sure help is available to those who want it.

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Daytona State case proves we need more work on the disability of addiction


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