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Working When Chronically Ill: Workplace Accommodations and Navigating Disability Issues

Depending on the nature of an individual’s chronic condition and how it impacts their daily life, they may or may not want to be in the workforce. Additionally, and depending on personal situations, an individual may be in a position where they need to work, despite everything else that’s going on. No matter what your situation is, there are workplace accommodations that exist and may help lead to professional success and wellbeing.

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What are workplace accommodations, and what are my rights to them?

Workplace accommodations, also called reasonable accommodations in the workplace, are adjustments to a job, its hiring or application process, its environment, or other aspects of the overall working experience, which are made to help a qualified individual with a disability adequately perform a job. An individual is considered qualified with a disability if they satisfy the education, experiences, skills, and other position-related requirements, and if they can complete the essential functions of the position, regardless of accommodations. The essential functions of a position are critical to the job. They are not occasional tasks or tasks that are unrelated to the job’s main purpose.1-3

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination against qualified workers with disabilities in the workplace. This legal act includes all employers, including private employers, unions, and state and local governments. This act also prohibits employers for retaliating against an individual for utilizing their ADA rights. Any American who has a chronic condition or a debilitating symptom of a chronic condition that requires modifications to their position in order to adequately perform their duties may be entitled to ADA-related accommodations. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the ADA. Additionally, the EEOC can be contacted when a complaint needs to be filed by a worker who is not receiving appropriate accommodations or who feels they are being discriminated against in the workplace.1-3

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What are examples of conditions that need accommodating, and what are common accommodations?

The ADA covers individuals with many kinds of disabilities. A disability, as outlined by the ADA and the EEOC is, “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.”1 These disabilities must be chronic in nature to be covered, however, having a previous history of an impairment, or having an employer who believes you have an impairment, might also lead you to be covered by the ADA. Mental health conditions such as major depression, severe anxiety, or panic disorder are considered disabilities by the ADA. Physical conditions like migraine, various forms of arthritis, chronic pain, cancer, hepatitis, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, skin disorders, respiratory disorders, and many more, are also covered by the ADA. Additionally, if you have a chronic symptom related to an overarching condition that impairs your daily life, it may be covered by the ADA.4

Accommodations are made and considered on a case-by-case basis, since every individual’s needs and the jobs they may be serving in can be incredibly varied. Some common accommodations may include adjusting a work schedule, modifying a location for better accessibility, changing training materials, changing the schedule and delivery of work-related feedback, modifying job equipment, modifying the lighting in an office space, restructuring a job, and more.2,4

How do I receive workplace accommodations?

It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of their disability alone. There are also strict rules on what kinds of questions an employer can ask during an interview regarding an individual’s past medical history, as well as what kinds of tests or information they can request. It is up to the individual needing accommodations to talk to their employer about what they need. Although this conversation may need to be started by the worker, legally, the employer should work together with the individual to provide whatever is needed, within reason. Preliminary documentation on a disability may be necessary, especially if the disability is not visibly obvious.

The initial talk, as well as any ongoing conversations on workplace accommodations, should be kept confidential between the employee and their supervisor. Both parties may suggest potential accommodations, and all agreed upon accommodations should be implemented within a timely manner. Also, everyone involved should document the adjustments made, dates of conversations or adjustments implemented, and any other pertinent information relating to the situation.2

If an individual feels as though their needs were not met in a timely fashion (or at all), or their employer retaliates against working with them to find mutually agreeable solutions, a complaint can be filed with the EEOC for investigation. The only reason an employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodations could be limited, is if the accommodations would cause undue hardship (being expensive, difficult to enact, or disruptive) or a direct threat to the employee or others around them if the accommodation interferes with best safety practices. Some organizations may even have departments within them dedicated to disability services that can help create and implement reasonable accommodations.2

Workplace accommodation resources

Whether an individual is considering looking into potential accommodations, is looking for tips on how to communicate with their supervisor about their needs, or wishes to file an ADA-related complaint, there are resources and organizations that can provide assistance. A small sampling of these include:

ADA National Network
The ADA National Networks helps provide information, training, guidance, and support to individuals needing workplace accommodations. They also have links to local resources and an informational hotline (phone number above).

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN)
A source of expert, confidential, and free guidance on disability employment and workplace accommodations. Also has an index of potential accommodations based on disability.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
For more information on the ADA and how to file formal complaints.

Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN)
An organization that helps employers retain, advance, recruit, and hire individuals with disabilities.

National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (NCWD/Youth)
For information on youth and employment with disabilities.

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