RA in the workplace
Having a fulfilling and rewarding job is important to most people. In fact, our work helps to define who we are and gives us independence, economic stability, and a sense of belonging in our communities. Because work is so important to us, it can be particularly difficult when the symptoms of RA interfere with our ability to carry out work responsibilities.
One study estimated that as many as one-third of people with RA are forced to stop working within 10 years of being diagnosed.1 Of course, many of the studies that have examined the impact of RA on the ability to work were conducted before recent advances in treatment. These advances have allowed more effective disease control, reduced joint damage, and improved the ability of patients to function. Therefore, nowadays, more and more people with RA are continuing to work and enjoy long and productive careers in a variety of occupations.
Even with the advances that have been made in the treatment of RA and the management of symptoms, it is important to know your rights in the workplace and options in case you find it too difficult to continue to work.
The good news about RA and employment in the US is that there are legal protections and provisions to help keep people with RA who want to continue to work in the workforce.
Before you make a decision about whether to leave the workforce, you need to know about relevant legal protections, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and employment services and resources that can help you continue to work. These services include vocational rehabilitation (VR), occupational therapy, job retention programs, and advocacy programs. The US Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is one resource that you can take advantage of to learn about your legal rights and accommodation strategies and options.
Vocational rehabilitation (VR) in the US is type of government program run by individual states (how the program is run varies from state to state) set up in accordance with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a law stipulating that services must be provided to help disabled persons become or remain employed. If you want to take advantage of VR in your state, you must demonstrate that you are eligible to participate in the program, which means that you have to show that you have a physical or mental impairment that constitutes a substantial impediment to working. You must also stand a reasonable chance of becoming employable by using the services offered to you through the VR program.
These services typically include:
- An assessment of the extent of your disability and need to correct or compensate for your disability
- Vocational counseling and guidance
- Use of assistive or adaptive technologies (medical appliances or prosthetic devices) that increase your ability to work
- Vocational training to help you find gainful employment
- Job placement services
- Services that follow-up on your program after you find a job
Applying for disability
If you find that you can no longer carryout your work activities because of symptoms associated with RA, you might want to consider applying for disability insurance benefits. Eligibility for disability insurance, as determined by the US Social Security Administration (SSA), is defined as:
- No longer being able to engage in the work that you have been accustomed to or trained for, and
- Not being able to engage in any other type of “substantial gainful activity” (this is defined as employment that provides compensation of at least $1040 per month)
To get the ball rolling in applying for disability, you need to obtain a claim form from your local employment development department office, your doctor, or a hospital. You will need your doctor to fill in part of the form, stating the nature of your disability and that you are no longer able to work at your present occupation.
If you want to continue to work in some capacity, you may be interested in a program offered by the SSA, in which you still qualify for disability benefits, but the SSA helps you find a job that you can perform even with your disabilities.