The legal classification of narcolepsy as a disability varies from country to country, but in the United States there are specific laws that protect people who are narcoleptic. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act both require that employers accommodate narcoleptics. Narcoleptic individuals can also secure financial assistance through social security disability insurance or the supplemental security income program. Despite legal recognition of this condition as a potential disability, the extent to which an individual is actually disabled by his or her narcolepsy depends on many factors.
Narcolepsy is not a mental illness, but rather a nervous system disorder that causes extreme daytime drowsiness every three to four hours. These periods of sleepiness can interfere with many routine activities. Those with severe symptoms may not be able to work, drive a car, or go to school.
It is rare for a narcoleptic to suddenly fall asleep during the day despite the fact that this is how the disorder is typically portrayed by the media. Most attacks last less than 15 minutes. Many narcoleptics lead productive lives thanks in part to treatments such as medications and lifestyle changes that control symptoms. Ultimately, only the individual with narcolepsy can determine how disabling his or her condition truly is, if at all.
Regardless of whether an employer views narcolepsy as a disability, the ADA protects narcoleptics from discrimination. As long as a person with narcolepsy can perform the essential duties of his or her job, an employer cannot treat him or her differently because of the condition.