Don't Let Your Chronic Condition Get You Down at Your New Job

February 17, 2019

Man walking with cane in parking lot
Renée Bacher

It can be exciting to start a new job, but if you are living with a chronic condition that may make office life difficult at times, you'll need to advocate for yourself.

You May Have Rights Guaranteed by Law

If you haven't already, start by consulting the Americans With Disabilities (ADA) Act to see if your condition qualifies as a disability by ADA standards, such as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity such as hearing, seeing, speaking, thinking, walking, breathing, or performing manual tasks. You also must be able to do the job you want or were hired to do, with or without reasonable accommodation."

If your chronic condition qualifies as a disability, the ADA can protect you from being harassed, disciplined or fired because of it, as well as help with training, benefits, promotion and any medical leave you may need, among other things. For documentation, it can help to have a letter from your doctor describing your chronic condition and what accommodations you specifically may need when you are working with a chronic condition.

The ADA also protects you from being harassed about your disability, and your employer cannot discipline or fire you for speaking up about your rights under the ADA. Additionally, if your condition is ADA-compliant as a disability, your company is required to supply you with what is known as a "reasonable accommodation," to adjust your work environment so you can perform your job and have the same access to benefits afforded to your co-workers.

What If Your Condition Is Invisible Much of the Time?

If your condition was invisible during your job interview — if you have an autoimmune disease like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus with episodes of severe inflammation, for example — your employer may be surprised to hear that you cannot navigate the stairs to your office when your illness flares. After you have accepted your job, it may be best to let your supervisor know that you might require reasonable accommodations.

These accommodations may include installing a wheelchair ramp and accessible rest room or office, finding a quiet work space for you if you have a mental health condition, or allowing you to text or email colleagues in place of phone calls if you have difficulty hearing. Working from home may even be an option. If you require time off for treatments, such as chemotherapy, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can help you keep your job if you are concerned about taking off too much time from work. Keep in mind that small businesses with fewer than 15 employees may be exempt from having to provide certain accommodations due to cost, so do your research in advance and know your rights.

Ask for What You Need

If you're working with a chronic condition that does not meet the ADA definition of a disability, you may still be able to receive accommodations, even if they are not required by law. This means letting your supervisor know that you have a condition and making them aware so that they don't misinterpret your behavior.

For example, if you have a history of low back pain, your employer might find you pacing in your office while talking on your cell phone rather than seated at your desk using the landline. It's best for them to know right off the bat that for your back to remain healthy, you're going to have to sit at work as little as possible. Asking for what you want at work doesn't have to be complicated. According to this article in Forbes, it's best to be direct in your requests (without coming across as aggressive or entitled) and do not assume your supervisor is a mind reader. For instance, you might ask if a standing desk is possible for your work space so you can keep your back healthy and not miss work due to chronic pain. If the response is that it's not in the budget, ask if you might supply your own.

According to this OpEd in The New York Times from an accessibility consultant and disability activist who also has multiple sclerosis, people with disabilities can sometimes have an aversion to asking for accommodations at work. She says, "...I know that resisting the reluctance to make waves is important — basic things like ramps, Braille materials, hearing assistance equipment or lowered counters can help people with disabilities live and work on or near par with others."

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