If you are living with multiple sclerosis (MS), you may find that the condition’s impact on your central nervous system can make it difficult to perform essential job tasks. You may therefore need adjustments to the type of work you do and how you do it. These adjustments are called workplace accommodations — and by law, U.S. employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees with recognized disabilities.
Understanding how your MS symptoms can affect your work and ways that you or your employer can accommodate them can help ensure your ability to continue pursuing gainful employment.
Some people with MS have mild symptoms that impact their careers minimally. For example, one MyMSTeam member shared, “I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) in 1974. Other than five days in the hospital being diagnosed, I did not take any time off work.”
For many other people with MS, though, symptoms may be so severe that getting to work or through the day can be difficult.
MS, a chronic and progressive disease, can lead to varying degrees of impairment and disability, including:
The type of work, the work environment, and how the work is done can also affect your MS. Exacerbations such as work-related stresses may trigger or worsen MS flares, making it important to determine and use the appropriate accommodations to do your best work.
Most people cite a combination of the many physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms of MS as the reasons for leaving their jobs. Workplace accommodations are the various adjustments to a role, function, or environment that enables a person with a disability to continue their employment. Job accommodations can include:
Accommodations can also include changing a person’s job title, redefining their role or function, or assigning them to another role within the same organization.
Reasonable job accommodations are the workplace accommodations a U.S. employer is obligated — under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — to provide to a person with a disability. These accommodations allow you to continue working despite the constraints of your condition. “Reasonable” means that the accommodation would not cause the employer an “undue hardship.” An undue hardship could be something that is impractical, hazardous, or exorbitantly expensive.
MS-related fatigue has a huge impact on a person’s ability to do their job. Fatigue, which affects 90 percent of people with MS, is the most frequently cited MS symptom as a barrier to employment. Some ways to accommodate the chronic exhaustion include:
Technology offers many accommodations for vision problems. Computer assistive technology enables many individuals, despite level of impairment or disability, to fully access the computer world. For example, speech-recognition software and modified or alternative keyboards allow continued interaction via computers.
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) — a no-cost service providing information about the ADA and workplace accommodations — has a Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR). SOAR is a great tool for exploring ways to accommodate MS in your work life.
People with MS are legally protected from discrimination by the Americans with Disabilities Act. These protections mean that the employer has a legal obligation to provide reasonable workplace accommodations for you and your medical condition.
It is not the employer’s responsibility to proactively provide reasonable accommodations to an employee, nor to determine what accommodations an employee with MS needs. Additionally, if an employee requests any reasonable accommodations for a disability, the employer is not allowed to blame that employee’s disability for any previous performance or disciplinary issues.
Under the ADA, qualified individuals have certain responsibilities that help ensure they’re protected from discrimination and other illegal actions an employer might take in response to their health condition or disability.
It is the employee’s responsibility to submit an accommodation request. If you do not hear back in a timely fashion, it’s your responsibility to follow up.
Per the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, your employer can request supporting information to determine whether your MS aligns with the ADA definition of disability.
That said, you are entitled to privacy.
Your employer is required to keep your disclosure confidential and in a separate file from your personnel file. Your accommodations can be discussed with your manager or supervisors, but you do not have to disclose your diagnosis or details about your medical condition to your manager when discussing job accommodations.
Knowledge is the key to successfully advocating for your needs in the workplace. Start by learning about your workplace employment policy. JAN’s Workplace Accommodation Toolkit has fact sheets, suggestions of different accommodations, and even a sample job-accommodation request letter. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society has a helpful publication about the ADA for people with MS.
Learn more about disability benefits and MS here.
There may come a time when you need to have a conversation with your employer. Know that the decisions of whether and when to disclose to your employer are personal, and they come with risks and benefits. Preparing yourself in advance to discuss symptoms such as fatigue and cognitive difficulties can help.
It is hard to know what to expect or when the time is right to make adjustments to your work. The health care providers involved in your MS treatment can help you prepare for a discussion about accommodations at work. Your health care team is experienced and can advise you well.
There may come a time when MS makes work unmanageable or impossible, despite workplace accommodations. “I have moderate MS but it’s debilitating enough that continuing full-time work was no longer a possibility,” a MyMSTeam member said.
A vocational rehabilitation therapist can help you explore career options or positions that may better accommodate a person living with multiple sclerosis.
Read more about career options for those with MS here.
It may feel isolating to need and ask for accommodations for your MS at work. Having the support of others who understand your situation may help. MyMSTeam is the social network for people with MS and their loved ones. Here, more than 167,000 members come together to give advice, ask questions, and share their experiences of life with MS.
How has having MS affected your ability to do your job? What accommodations have you found helpful? Leave a comment below or start a conversation on MyMSTeam.