ADA Accommodations in the Workplace
I was three weeks into my first major job after graduating from college when I began experiencing symptoms of Crohn’s disease. I worked in a very small office, with two stalls in each the women’s and men’s bathrooms and very, very thin walls separating them from the cubicles on the other side. My dominant symptoms included crippling abdominal pain, frequent and urgent diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. As you can imagine, these were most definitely not things I wanted to share with my co-workers. Being brand new to the company, I didn’t have any vacation days to start off with. I felt trapped between a rock and a hard place. To be honest, I started going to the Starbucks across the street to get tea and use the restroom when I had the luxury to do so.
Grateful for the flexibility
Within a month, I ended up in the hospital for the first time. Working for a non-profit organization at the time, my boss and colleagues were extremely understanding. They allowed me to work from home while I tried to get things sorted out. Unfortunately, you know how the rest of my story goes - there was no resolution, only learning ways to manage. I worked for this company for the next two years, and was eternally grateful for the flexibility they offered to me. I always got my work done, met deadlines and exceeded expectations, whether I was in the office, at home, or in the hospital. I felt comfortable being somewhat honest about the times when I struggled with my health, or couldn’t make it into work.
Although limited, I did what I could
I left that job to attend graduate school out of state. About halfway through my first semester away, I was experiencing a devastating peak in the severity of my illness. I was largely unable to function or care for myself, and my academic advisor helped me to transfer into a program back home. During this chapter of my life, as a student, I was operating in a space where I was not being paid. This reduced some of my fears about not being able to meet expectations on a daily basis from a supervisor or colleagues. There was one semester I had to withdraw from, and an internship that took me twice as long as it should’ve to complete, but I was able to soldier forward, one step at a time, and focus on my illness in the way that it required. When I graduated with my Master's Degree, I was not physically able to commute to work or commit to a full-time job. Feeling incredibly distressed, I did the things I was able to from home, including writing and publishing a book. I desperately needed to feel like I could do something productive while I was waiting for the ability to return to the work world.
Feeling somewhat optimistic about my health about a year later, I took a job in my field which required almost 90 minutes of commute each way. I had been so hopeful that the job would be a stepping stone to something that enabled me to move into the city and find some much sought after independence. It, unfortunately, did not work out that way. I did not disclose anything about my health when I began the job, and for a little while that worked out okay. About six months into the position, I had to be taken to the hospital for a severe GI flare. I chose to open up to my supervisor about my illness at that point. My symptoms remained in flux after that, and I ended up taking a medical leave of absence from my job, feeling incredibly defeated.
The perfect opportunity
For the next half a year, I focused intently on my health, on the ways in which I took care of my body and the physician's I worked with. In the summer of 2015, I was actually contacted by a recruiter who found my resume on LinkedIn, and reached out to me about an opportunity. When I learned that I had serious interest in the opportunity AND that it was a remote job, one I could do from home (or the hospital, or the doctor's office waiting room, or the infusion center) - I LEAPED at the chance to interview for it.
After being hired for the position, I had my GI doctor fill out the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) paperwork to protect my rights as a disabled employee. Because my position was already remote and did not require me to be in the office, this form only included some secondary accommodations. But my doctor and I felt that they helped me to feel like my job was secure and that I was able to be successful, even when I was sick. The main accommodations requested on my paperwork involved flexible work hours and a modified work schedule when necessary. This left me the ability to respond to emails and requests early or late in the day, or on the weekends if my business hours were difficult.
Based on what type of job you do, where you are employed, your disease activity and your relationship with your physician, I would absolutely suggest looking into filing ADA paperwork with your place of business. I am most grateful for the sense of security this has offered me during times when I am not well or in the hospital and cannot be available to my job.
If you’ve had this conversation with your doctor or your employer, I would love to hear the responses you’ve received. Please feel free to comment below with any questions on my experiences as well.
How open are you about being diagnosed with IBD?