4 Changes That Can Make Your Job More MS-Friendly
Many employers are receptive to proposed changes that can make it easier for you to work.
By Quinn Phillips
Medically Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD
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People with multiple sclerosis (MS) often face a broad array of challenges, but for some people, the most challenging environment of all is the workplace.
Many people with MS eventually find it impossible to continue working at their jobs because of various symptoms, like fatigue, cognitive difficulties, and impaired mobility. And even people without pronounced MS symptoms may worry about what will happen if their disease takes a turn for the worse.
The good news for American workers is that under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), people with MS are generally entitled to request accommodations at work that can ease some of their extraordinary burdens. These accommodations can take a wide variety of forms, from physical changes in your workspace to scheduling changes or even different responsibilities.
This article describes a few of the accommodations that have helped people with MS continue to thrive at work, and how you can go about requesting accommodations if you need them.
Until recently, Meg Lewellyn, a 46-year-old Seattle resident who has had MS for almost 10 years, worked for a local internet company. When the business was bought by a foreign company, all U.S. employees were laid off — otherwise, she says, she’d still be working there.
During her first two years with her former employer, Lewellyn says, “I was fortunate enough to work from home. Other than the weekly staff meeting and occasional meetings with my team members, I wasn't in the office.”
But when she eventually had to work in the office full time, Lewellyn found that her employer wasn’t rigid about her routine.
“The fact that if I did get hit with a flare, I could either work from home or take the time off, really helped reduce the stress,” she says.
Cheryl Hile, a 42-year-old San Diego resident who has had MS for 10 years, works as a contracts and grants administrator for the University of California in San Diego. While she's also fortunate to have a boss who lets her work from home and take time off for appointments without any hassle, she has requested a change to her office space, too.
“My legs get very sore and stiff when I sit for long periods,” Hile says, because of spasticity from MS. So last year, she requested an adjustable desk that could be switched from a sitting to standing position.
Her boss, she says, didn’t hesitate, and even agreed to order a more expensive motorized model so that she wouldn’t have to raise and lower the desktop herself — something that wouldn’t have been easy for her.
“The flexibility to work sitting or standing has helped greatly,” she says. “I am more productive throughout the day because I am not concentrating so much on being in pain,” which is neuropathic and often worse when she sits or has bad posture.
But this benefit has exacted a small price: the envy of her coworkers. “Now everyone wants a stand-up desk!” she says.
Vito Seripiero, a 58-year-old Seattle resident who has had MS for 18 years, works as an aircraft engineer at the Boeing Company. His workplace is vast — his building alone has about 3,000 people working in it — and he often needs to move from one area of the building to another.
When his mobility became limited, Seripiero recalls: “I contacted HR and was put in touch with a company disability management representative.” This representative arranged for him to have a company-issued mobility scooter at work, as well as an assigned handicapped parking space.
“I have moved to new locations several times in the past 18 years, and my scooter and parking assignments have moved with me,” he says.
Seripiero says that his requests for accommodations “were received and acted on with no issue,” and that the changes “actually made it so I was able to do my job effectively.”
Channing Barker, a 27-year-old resident of northwest Arkansas who has had MS for 11 years, works as a senior reporter at a local television station. Because of the public nature of her job, she says it’s been essential to be open with her supervisors and coworkers about her MS and the challenges it brings.
“When I did experience a relapse, I just used my cane and kept my IV port for my infusions in on-air,” she says. “There was nothing to hide on my end.”
But occasionally putting her MS on display to the world isn’t the only thing that sets Barker apart from her colleagues. While most reporters are responsible for segments in which they write, shoot, and edit their own material, Barker has a photographer assist her with these assignments.
“When I took this job, I made it clear that [carrying equipment] could spark a flare-up,” she says.
“I get embarrassed that I'm not able to do this part of the job, while my coworkers are in the field daily lugging their own equipment,” says Barker, who worries that the accommodation “might be seen as a weakness” and impact her advancement as a reporter.
Fortunately, none of her coworkers have expressed any resentment. “It's simply a mental concern,” she says.
Asking for Changes
Linda Carter Batiste, a lawyer and principal consultant for the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) — a resource of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) — says that it’s a good idea to indicate some flexibility when asking for an accommodation at work.
“For example,” she says, you “might say, ‘One possible solution I have is … but I’d be happy to explore other ideas you might have.'”
“We also recommend that employees consider putting the initial accommodation request in writing,” says Batiste, so that it’s clear exactly what you’re asking for, and there’s a record to follow up on later, if needed. A guide to writing such a letter is available on the JAN website.
Then, says Batiste, it’s important to follow up on your request if your employer doesn’t get back to you within a reasonable amount of time. One way to do this, she says, is to “send an email indicating the date the request was made and asking for a status report,” along with an offer to provide more information, if needed.
While an employer can deny a request if it poses an “undue hardship” — and you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if you think your employer lacked a valid reason to deny your request — most of the time, says Batiste, having a flexible and open dialogue with your employer leads to something both sides can accept.
“Just go ahead and make suggestions,” she says.
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