Because insomnia is usually a symptom of something else, it is not typically a disability in its own right. Instead, the underlying cause might be a disability.
Mental health conditions are some of the most common causes of insomnia. There are many other causes, such as sleep disorders, neurological disorders, and conditions that cause chronic pain. Any of these could be disabilities, depending on their impact on a person’s ability to function.
That said, there are different ways of defining what disability is. People who have insomnia with no clear cause and experience significant impairments because of it may personally feel that it is a disability.
This article will look at whether insomnia is a disability from medical and legal perspectives. It will also explore whether people with insomnia could get disability benefits and what workplace accommodations might help.
From a medical perspective, insomnia alone is typically not a disability. This is because it is usually a symptom of another condition rather than a condition itself.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Social Security Administration (SSA) influence what rights and support people with disabilities can get, but they have slightly different definitions of disability. Whether they apply to a person with insomnia will depend on their unique situation.
The ADA is a piece of legislation that protects the rights of disabled people in the United States. It does not use a list of specific conditions to define disability. Instead, the ADA defines disability as a mental or physical condition that substantially hinders one or more major life activities, and that a person has evidence for.
The ADA may not apply to insomnia as a symptom. However, if a person meets the diagnostic criteria for a sleep disorder, mental health condition, or other known cause of sleeplessness, this can meet the ADA’s definition of disability.
If that is the case, the ADA will protect certain rights and entitlements, such as the right to reasonable workplace accommodations that help a person stay at work.
The SSA is a government organization that oversees disability benefits, among other things. It defines disability as the inability to engage substantially in work due to mental or physical impairment, if that impairment:
- has been ongoing for at least 12 months
- will last for at least 12 months
- will result in death
Unlike the ADA, the SSA does have a specific list of conditions that it considers disabilities, which appear in a manual known as the Blue Book. Insomnia does not appear in this list.
That said, there are conditions on the list that can cause insomnia. Additionally, there is some flexibility, as some people whose conditions are not in the Blue Book may still qualify if they can provide enough evidence.
Many conditions that cause insomnia can be eligible for protection under the ADA. As the ADA does not list specific conditions it considers to be disabilities, anyone who meets the criteria of having a condition that substantially hinders life activities can benefit from its protections.
The SSA is more prescriptive. Some conditions that it considers to be disabilities and can cause insomnia include:
- mental health conditions that cause difficulty with daily activities, social functioning, and concentration
- certain digestive conditions that have severe symptoms or complications or require hospitalization or feeding through a tube
- severe cardiovascular conditions, such as ischemic heart disease or chronic heart failure
Some conditions that can cause insomnia are not on the SSA’s list of disabilities. They include:
- Sleep apnea: This condition causes a person’s breathing to stop temporarily during sleep. The SSA does not list this condition on its own.
- Narcolepsy: This neurological condition causes people to fall asleep involuntarily during the daytime. It can also cause insomnia at night. The SSA does not have a listing for narcolepsy or any other sleep disorder.
- Restless leg syndrome: This condition involves an irresistible urge to move the legs, which makes it hard to fall or stay asleep. The SSA Blue Book does not have a separate listing for it.
People whose conditions do not appear in the SSA’s manual may be able to apply for benefits if they can prove the impact on their ability to work. This is known as a “medical-vocational allowance,” or MVA.
Getting an MVA can be difficult. It involves asking a doctor to write a detailed medical history and providing a work history, including education level. The SSA then determines what type of work a person can still do based on their abilities and training.
SSA has two disability benefit programs: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
SSDI benefits depend on a person’s lifetime earnings, while SSI benefits are for individuals with limited assets and resources. This program helps those who have never worked or who have not worked long enough to qualify for SS benefits.
As of December 2022, the average monthly benefits under SSDI were $1,688, and the average monthly benefits for SSI were $622.
The ADA requires employers to make workplace changes for people with disabilities. Some that may help a person with insomnia could include:
- periodic rest breaks
- job restructuring
- flexible working
- working from home
- adequate lighting in the workplace
- allowing employees to use desk lamps that simulate sunlight
It may also help to make changes that help improve concentration, such as:
- installing cubicle walls or doors to reduce distraction
- addressing noise in the workplace
- setting time aside for uninterrupted quiet work
Insomnia is not a disability by most definitions. However, it may be a symptom of another condition that is a disability. For example, some of the most common causes of insomnia are mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. These conditions could be disabilities, depending on their impact.
The SSA also does not list insomnia or specific sleep disorders as disabilities. In some cases, though, a person may be able to prove that the cause of their insomnia does significantly impair their ability to work, which may get them an MVA.
Workplace adjustments that can help with insomnia may include flexible work schedules, working from home, or changes to the environment to help with concentration and wakefulness.