Excessive sleepiness caused by narcolepsy can make everyday life challenging. But there are legal protections in place to help.

Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological condition that affects the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Though symptoms can vary from person to person, they can have a profound impact on everyday life.

The most common symptoms of narcolepsy include:

  • excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS)
  • cataplexy (a sudden loss of muscle control)
  • sleep paralysis, which can sometimes be accompanied by hallucinations

It’s important to note that less than a quarter of those with narcolepsy typically experience all four of these symptoms, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. There’s a lot of variation in how this condition manifests, which can sometimes create limitations in qualifying as a disability for some.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define a disability as any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for a person to perform or participate in certain activities.

Narcolepsy exists on a spectrum, so those who live with the condition often experience different levels of limitation. But for some people, narcolepsy impacts their life enough to qualify as a disability.

Narcolepsy can be considered both a physical and mental disability since it affects both the body and the mind. It causes mental changes, including excessive daytime sleepiness and a loss of concentration. Other symptoms are primarily physical, like:

  • episodes of sudden sleepiness
  • cataplexy
  • sleep paralysis

Some people with the condition also experience “automatic behaviors,” meaning that they fall asleep during an activity, and continue the activity without being aware of what they’re doing. Their performance is usually impaired, which can be dangerous if they’re in the middle of an activity like driving.

All these symptoms can make everyday life more challenging for a person with narcolepsy.

Yes, narcolepsy is a condition covered by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA forbids employment discrimination on the basis of disability. To be protected by the ADA, a person must have a physical or mental disability that substantially limits at least one major life activity.

Because narcolepsy can cause excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden loss of muscle control, this condition may make it challenging for some people to perform job duties. Certain types of work may be dangerous for people with narcolepsy, particularly those that involve driving or operating machinery.

In a 2019 legal case regarding the termination of an employee in Alabama, the court explicitly stated that narcolepsy is a covered disability. The court noted that narcolepsy is a physical impairment that can substantially limit major life activities — in this case, the plaintiff’s ability to do his job — and therefore qualified as a disability under the ADA.

Narcolepsy is not on the SSA’s list of qualified disorders. But if the condition affects their ability to work, a person with narcolepsy may still qualify for Social Security benefits.


Although there is no listing for the condition itself, SSA claims for narcolepsy are sometimes assessed under the same criteria as nonconvulsive epilepsy. If a person’s narcolepsy causes frequent sleeping episodes, they may qualify under this criteria.

To qualify, you must prove that:

  • You have at least one narcolepsy episode a week.
  • You’re still having symptoms despite having received treatment for at least 3 months.
  • Your condition has severely inhibited your ability to carry out day-to-day activities.

To qualify, you’ll need to provide evidence of your condition, including as much medical information as possible. Your doctor can help you gather this information. Details that the SSA may ask for include:

  • your clinical diagnosis
  • the date when symptoms began
  • what diagnostic tests your doctor used to diagnose you
  • what symptoms you experience and how often they occur
  • any medications you take for your condition, their impact on your symptoms, and any side effects

It’s also helpful to have a letter from your doctor outlining how your condition affects your ability to work.

What if my claim is denied?

If your claim is denied, don’t be discouraged. You have 60 days after the notice of denial to appeal. And if your appeal is denied, you’re also entitled to a hearing before a judge.

Hiring a Social Security lawyer may be a good idea at this stage. Most attorneys who handle these types of cases work on a contingency basis, meaning they will not be paid unless they win your case.

Even if your application for SSA benefits isn’t approved, keep in mind that your condition is still protected under the ADA. That means that you may be able to ask your employer for accommodations.

Reasonable accommodations

Under the ADA, employers are required to make “reasonable accommodations” to allow folks with disabilities to successfully perform their job. There are three main areas where accommodations are required, including:

  • enduring equal opportunity during the hiring process
  • enabling any qualified person with a disability to perform their job functions
  • allowing any employee with a disability to enjoy the same benefits and privileges of employment as a person without a disability

Specific accommodations will vary, depending on:

  • the nature of your work
  • where you work
  • other factors

For a person with narcolepsy, an example of a reasonable accommodation might be your employer working with you to create a flexible schedule allowing for potentially unpredictable sleep patterns.

It may be a good idea to speak with your company’s human resources manager to find out what accommodations are already available.

Living with narcolepsy can present a number of challenges. Excessive sleepiness, sudden muscle weakness, and unpredictable bouts of daytime sleeping can make everyday tasks more difficult.

However, know that there are many legal resources available that can help you if you have narcolepsy or are supporting a loved one with the condition.

Narcolepsy is a recognized and protected disability under the ADA. This means that employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to support you in performing your job duties.

In some cases, narcolepsy may qualify you for Social Security benefits. Whether you qualify depends on:

  • your specific symptoms
  • severity
  • how your participation in daily activities is impacted

To learn more about your disability rights, consider checking out online resources like:

Dealing with narcolepsy can be an isolating experience, but you don’t have to go it alone. To connect with others, you can find in-person and virtual support groups via the Narcolepsy Network. The Narcolepsy 360 podcast can also offer guidance on everyday life with the condition from those who live with it.