On the Job With MS: Work Accommodations That Can Make It Easier
Multiple sclerosis (MS) can affect every aspect of life—including your work. For example, the unpredictable nature of MS means that flares can come without warning, which could mean you need to take days off without giving your boss or team advance notice. You may also need to take time off for doctor’s appointments or physical therapy. And symptoms like pain, impaired coordination, and cognitive issues can make just about any job more challenging.
Fortunately, there are many ways employers can accommodate your condition, making the situation more workable for all involved.
What Are Work Accommodations for People with MS?
The work accommodations you may need will likely depend on the type of job you have and the MS symptoms you experience.
“Many people with MS have fatigue or poor endurance, so they might need a flexible work schedule,” says Barbara Giesser, M.D., a neurologist and MS specialist at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
If you’re dealing with fatigue, just the act of getting to your workstation (and then spending eight hours in it!) can take a physical toll. If you commute to work by car and have trouble getting from the parking lot or garage to the building, you might find it makes a positive difference to have a designated parking spot closer to the entrance. If you have a desk job—even one that you do remotely—it may be helpful to upgrade your workstation to be more ergonomic.
“An example of a work accommodation request would be, ‘If you get me an ergonomic keyboard, I'll be able to do my job better because it prevents my hands from getting tired,’” Giesser explains.
Other Examples of Multiple Sclerosis Work Accommodations
Here are some other potential accommodations that may make it easier to do what you need to do at work:
- Ergonomic desk equipment, such as computer workstation adaptations, voice recognition software, a trackball mouse, a glare screen (to prevent visual impairment), or an anti-fatigue standing mat
- A workspace located near the bathroom
- Grab bars in the bathroom
- Entrance ramps next to stairs
- A remote-work plan for days you feel fatigued
- A reduced schedule on days when symptoms are worse
- Time off for healthcare appointments
- Reduced hours or a permanent part-time schedule
Your Rights Under the ADA
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gives you the right to ask for and receive what are called “reasonable accommodations” to do your job when you have MS. “According to ADA, all individuals with officially diagnosed medical conditions have a right to reasonable work accommodations that allow them to complete their jobs effectively,” says Brittany Ferri, Ph.D., an occupational therapist in Rochester, New York. “ADA states that employers should do all they can without undue hardship to meet a disabled employee's needs.”
A “reasonable accommodation” does not mean assigning you to a new position, taking away essential parts of your job, or providing you with personal items, like mobility aids. Rather, it’s meant to prompt a conversation between you and your employer about how you can do your current job more effectively, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
How to Ask for Multiple Sclerosis Work Accommodations
It’s important to take the right approach when requesting work accommodations. Consider the following:
Don’t wait until you’re struggling.
Once you’ve assessed what a new job is like—or if you’ve noticed that your symptoms have changed while you’ve held your current job—you’ll probably have a sense pretty quickly of what kind of accommodations would be helpful for you. Don’t wait to talk about it.
“Speak to your employer before your condition begins impacting your job performance,” Ferri says. “Present the facts and document the symptoms that make your job most difficult.”
Research your options.
If you’re unsure what type of multiple sclerosis work accommodations would be helpful for you, ask your neurologist for a referral to an occupational or physical therapist who can talk you through different options and make suggestions for your specific situation. Or use the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s provider locator tool to look up occupational therapists who are knowledgeable about MS.
Talk to your manager.
Have an honest conversation with your manager or supervisor about how certain accommodations would help you be a better, healthier, and more productive employee. You don’t even have to tell your employer that you have MS if that makes you uncomfortable; you just have to tell them what kind of accommodation you need. If you’re okay with disclosing your MS diagnosis, you can ask your neurologist to write a letter to your employer detailing the types of multiple sclerosis work accommodations you’d like to request.
Take it up the chain of command.
If your manager isn’t willing to help, bring the same information to your company’s human resources department. And if that goes nowhere, consider filing a complaint with the government. “You have every right to file a formal complaint if both parties refuse to make reasonable accommodations for you,” Ferri says.
To file a complaint, contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) at 800-669-4000 or EEOC.gov.
Put requests in writing.
Although you may not be required by your company to submit accommodation requests in writing, doing so means you’ll have documentation of what you requested and when you asked for it. This will make it easier to follow up if you need to.
Even if your company does its best to accommodate your MS-related requests, it’s possible that your job still won’t feel like the right fit. If that happens, you might consider meeting with a vocational rehabilitation therapist who can help people with MS investigate other career options that might be better for them. Each state has its own vocational rehabilitation agency; reach out to find someone who can help you find your best work-life balance while living with MS.
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