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OP-ED: Anxiety as a disability in law

  • Published at 11:49 pm June 27th, 2020
Mental Health Mind
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How can work spaces be more accommodating of those with mental disorders?

On the face of it, you might seem like a social butterfly. Your university days might have had you surrounded with seniors, juniors, and contemporaries who had elected you to lead. You might have been one of those who would enter the cafeteria and exchange pleasantries with someone or two, at almost every table.

Your life on Instagram now seems as though you have the dream job, the most supportive family, a beautiful home, and the most loving and understanding partner. People literally envy you -- “They have the perfect life!”

The killer within

Yet, too often, you struggle with anxiety. The stressed side of you is something only the closest to you know of. It eventually ends up taking a toll on your physical health, such as shortness of breath, nausea, shaking of arms, sweating, loss of appetite, and even fever. The heart keeps pounding, and it becomes literally impossible to set your mind elsewhere, other than the particular thought(s) that triggered your usual anxiety-carrying personality.

It can be an instance as normal as poor performance at a presentation. You fail to let it go, and with time, you overthink every possible consequence that your dissatisfactory performance might lead to, irrespective of such chances being slim.

Not only do you fear losing your job or the chance of a promotion, you instantly imagine your financial condition upon such loss, the utter humiliation and all the small talk “the society” will have about your situation.

You picture losing your loved one because of how unsuccessful you are, and even think of how the person could have ended up with someone who would provide them with everything you do not, or will never be able to.

While time helps in getting over the anxiety, it only takes a few days (or minutes) to worry about something else and fall back into being anxious. It can seem like, “I’ll get over this anxiety once I perform really well the next time.” But then you don’t, and you fall into a spiral and it is a continuous process.

This feeling that keeps you thinking about it (and literally nothing else in the world), is one that keeps eating you up. Your full concentration on any other aspect of your life is hampered, and starting off every new day is terrifying.

Of course, from law backgrounds, a psychological/psychiatric definition of such feelings is difficult for us to give. However, readers must bear in mind that this article focuses on a person who is generally anxious and suffers from constant heartbeats which can become the worst kind of enemy.

Also, if one can exactly relate to the above, it is likely that they need help, and should be offered all considerations, as someone who is disabled would be, at their workplace.

The law

Section 6 of the Rights and Protection of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2013 adds “psychosocial” as a part of disability, a term that refers to schizophrenia or other disabilities such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, or phobic disorders that prevent people from engaging in daily activities.

While such provision might seem comforting, issues relating to mental health in general are vastly ignored in Bangladesh by the masses. These issues are either considered to bother only those who have no “real life struggles,” or the sufferers are stereotyped as “pagol” (lunatics) and looked down upon regardless of the qualities and skills they might actually possess, which could well benefit an employer. 

In spite of the fact that Sections 35 and 36 of the aforementioned Act ensure non-discrimination against people with disabilities (including compensation), and Section 40 specifically mentions actions against companies, a job candidate with anxiety, for instance, is much more unlikely to be perceived as disabled, in comparison to one who visibly possesses a physical disability. 

Of course, it is understandable that it is not practical for someone in a wheelchair to join the infantry branch of the army, or a workforce of mechanics who must climb a certain height to fix air-conditioners. But having mentioned “reasonable accommodation,” a Bangladesh Government Gazette published on October 9, 2013, emphasizing something the US Department of Labour is clearer about -- a reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done during the hiring process.

These modifications enable an individual with a disability to have an equal opportunity not only to get a job, but successfully perform their tasks the same extent as people without disabilities.  

The challenge

It is notable that a common requirement in job circulars tends to be: “They should be able to work under pressure.”

To begin with, is a regular job interview fair to assess someone with severe anxiety disorder? Do the workplaces care enough to perhaps make lives for such employees easier with flexible working hours? Are workplaces accommodating, in any manner at all, for someone who suffers from anxiety?

More importantly, for one who has such a disability, must they show a certificate by a professional in accordance with the Mental Health Act, 2018, to an employer, in order to avail the assistance that disabled candidates might require?

Lastly, what are the odds that an employer in Bangladesh is going to consider the seriousness of anxiety, and make work comfortable for a currently diagnosed employee? Or that they would be at all keen on hiring such an anxious employee, let alone accommodating those who suffer from long-term bipolar disorders, clinical depression, or schizophrenia?

Saquib Rahman and Md Fahmedul Islam Dewan are full-time Lecturer and Teaching Assistant, respectively, in the Department of Law at North South University.

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