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Health Care Sufferers of MS fear office discrimination

For many, the thought of interviewing for a job is enough to elicit sweaty palms, high blood pressure and that butterfly sensation in one’s stomach.

Add a visible or hidden disability to the mix, and the horror people with multiple sclerosis face when interviewing in today’s job market becomes clear.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are some 333,000 people with MS in the United States, 5,000 of whom live in San Diego County.

MS is a chronic disease of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and can strike anyone at any time.

The disease is especially tricky, because its progress, severity and specific symptoms in any person vary and can’t be predicted.

A person can have “minor” symptoms of fatigue and numbness one day and suffer more severe ambulatory and speech problems the next day.

According to Rick Griffin, a spokesman for the local chapter of the National MS Society, about 80 percent of first-time diagnosed MS patients are able to remain in the work force.

But given the uncertainty of the disease, most MS patients struggle with the decision of when and whether to tell a prospective employer about their diagnosis.


Disabilities Act

A recent meeting held at SDSU linking MS patients to the experts in workplace disclosure issues offered some helpful tips.

“Disclosure is an individual choice,” said Mechelle Marler, an SDSU counselor dedicated to helping students with disabilities.

Under a provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals are protected as long as they can “perform the essential functions of a job.”

At the same time, the ADA prescribes that employees may request “reasonable accommodations” as long as it doesn’t cause the employer “undue hardship.”

Reasonable accommodations could include modified equipment, such as a foot panel, or a flexible work schedule.

“Undue hardship” refers to accommodations that would be overly costly, extensive or disruptive.

Although employers and employees should agree early on what’s considered “reasonable accommodations” and what is “unreasonable,” the debate is often referred to the courts when employers and employees can’t agree any longer.

“It’s a real shaky area,” Marler said. “They made ADA to help people with disabilities, but then they threw in this clause that says, ‘Hey, here’s a way out if you need it.’ ”


Rampant Fear

The fear of discrimination is so rampant in the MS community that most workers with it don’t tell their employers.

One unidentified woman with no visible signs of disabilities said she learned her lesson.

After three weeks on her new job, the woman finally worked up the courage to confide in her boss.

Relieved to see her boss’ empathy, she went about her business. At the end of the workday, however, she was terminated with a verbal explanation that “she worked too slowly.”

Another woman said she feared looking dishonest if she assured her boss she could do certain tasks, but then progressed to the point where she couldn’t do them any more.

Marler acknowledged their frustrations, but said it’s critical for MS patients to remain upbeat.

“If the disability is visible, bring up the subject yourself, then drop it,” Marler emphasized.

“This interview is about what you can do, not about what you can’t do.”

Karen Demme, a spokeswoman for the local MS Society, said employers tend to become more accepting after they learn more about MS.

But a man in a wheelchair disagreed, contending he had not found an employer who was willing to accommodate him.

Marler pointed to the California Department of Rehabilitation as a source of help for MS patients returning to the work force.

Erin Treadwill, public information officer at the Department of Rehabilitation in Sacramento, however, said the waiting list is long.

Patients considered “severely disabled and “most severely disabled” can expect to receive services right away; “disabled” patients wait on average six to 12 months to be served.

According to the MS Society, the progression of the illness forces most patients to leave the work force four to five years after diagnosis.

But for Kent Foster, 54, who was diagnosed with MS in 1996, life and work go together.

“I have been very fortunate,” said Foster about the progression of the disease and his employer in San Diego, who offers him flexibility. He admitted, however, he feared discrimination and only told his boss after being hired.

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