Life with MS

5 Factors to Consider Before Requesting a Job Accomodation

By Michelle Clos, LPC, CEAP, ACC

I had been diagnosed with MS for three years before I began seeing little signs that it was affecting me at work. When the fatigue continued to linger, I attributed it to the 60-hour work weeks. The day I almost fell out of my office chair because I felt as though I was on a Tilt-a-Whirl ride™, I convinced myself it was an ear infection and not vertigo.  

When I realized I was repeatedly forgetting things (the IT professionals were becoming annoyed with my frequent requests to reset my computer password; I was running out of colleagues to casually ask how to log into the phone system; and I began to forget meetings I had been attending weekly for the past year), I could not find a convenient rationale. I had to accept the memory loss was MS-related and that it was time to take my doctor’s advice and request a reduction in work hours.

First factor: Do not ignore the challenges you are having performing your job. Doing so may lead to job performance issues and could result in disciplinary action from your employer. Most employers learn of an employee’s disability when the employee requests a job accommodation. This is because it is not the employer’s responsibility to offer a reasonable accommodation to an employee. It is the disabled employee’s responsibility to come forward and request an accommodation. Also, your employer is not required to rescind any discipline prior to being notified of job accommodation request.

Second factor: Do your research. Having heard about the Americans with Disability Act, I researched it further. This led to an invaluable resource for individuals with disabilities who want to remain in the workforce: The Job Accommodation Network, (askjan.org). JAN is a free consulting service that provides information about the ADA and job accommodations. I was in awe at the amount of information I found on their website.

Especially helpful was their Job Accommodation Toolbox which had fact sheets organized by disability or topic. There was also a sample job accommodation letter request, information about the possible limitations MS might cause for someone in the workforce, and ideas for possible accommodations. JAN also had a Searchable Online Accommodation Resource with links to information about the common limitations incurred by individuals with MS and possible accommodations requests for those challenges. 

Third Factor: Decide and prepare. After thoroughly reviewing JAN’s website, I contacted my neurologist to get his input regarding my accommodation request. I was incredibly fortunate to have support from him and his staff, who immediately wrote a letter to my employer outlining the recommended accommodation (flexible work hours and a reduced schedule). 

The decision to disclose to your employer is a personal one and requires careful consideration of the pros and cons. In my case, my disability was not obvious so my doctor included my MS diagnosis in the letter. I believe he did so preemptively because he knew according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, my employer could request supporting information to determine whether I had a disability according to the ADA.

By law, your employer is required to keep your disclosure confidential and in a separate file – not in your personnel file. Your accommodation needs can be discussed with your manager/supervisors, but your medical diagnosis should not be disclosed unless an emergency necessitates it. Not all employers will ask for supporting medical information, but it is something to consider as you prepare to ask for a job accommodation. 

Fourth factor: Positive presentation. It is not required that you make your request in writing; you can do so verbally. Submitting a written request documents the exact accommodation and indicates when it was made. Doing so verbally may be viewed as more personal and therefore may lessen your employer’s defensiveness. I submitted a letter outlining my job accommodation request and had a face-to-face meeting in which I verbally communicated my ideas for an accommodation. I found the face-to-face meeting helpful, because it allowed me to expand on my request and provide my boss with information about MS.

I felt confident explaining my accommodation request and educating my boss on MS because prior to the conversation I had practiced it with a friend. You could also practice by writing yourself a script or key points to remember. I approached the conversation from a win/win perspective. I would suggest highlighting why you want to continue working for your employer and list all the things you love about your job and what you have accomplished in your tenure with the company. Then lead into a discussion about the functions of your job, identify where you are experiencing difficulty performing your job, or the limitations you are facing in the workplace. 

Communicate what or how an accommodation could overcome the difficulties and benefit both you and the company. If you are concerned about your confidentiality, identify the individual with the authority to grant your request. This will limit the number of people with access to your request/diagnosis.

Fifth factor:  Follow up. If you meet the requirements to be classified as disabled according to the ADA, your employer must grant accommodations which do not cause them “undue hardship.” The ADA does not specify exactly what an “undue hardship” is, but in general it means the request is practical, will not cost the employer an exorbitant amout of money, and will not cause unnecessary interruption in the workplace or a safety hazard. If you believe your rights are being violated, contact the EEOC at 800-669-4000 or www.eeoc.gov.

If you become overwhelmed trying to determine what type of accommodation would be helpful or how to present your job accommodation request, contact the resources listed throughout this article or consider working with a career coach who is knowledgeable about MS, ADA, and job accommodations. 

After completing a certification in Executive Coaching at the University of Texas at Dallas and being credentialed by the International Coach Federation, Michelle Clos decided to turn her new skill into a volunteer opportunity through the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. Michelle is an Associate Credentialed Coach, a Certified Employee Assistant Professional, and a Licensed Professional Counselor. She had her first symptoms of MS in 1991 and was formally diagnosed in 2001. Michelle can be reached at Michelle.Clos@coach4ms.com or 214-532-6965. Her website www.coach4ms.com is in the development stage.

(Last reviewed 3/2012)