Within Reach: Accomodations Help people with disabilities maintain productivity
Multiple sclerosis is a frightening disease, in part because it’s unpredictable. It attacks the central nervous system, usually striking young to middle age adults, many of whom were otherwise healthy. A person with multiple sclerosis may feel numbness in the limbs, experience blurred vision or lose balance while walking. Those symptoms may disappear after a few days, but they will likely reappear later, along with others. Whether to continue working is just one major decision people diagnosed with MS must make.
The disease caught Rick Roessler’s attention in 1992 while he was seeking grants to promote research in vocational rehabilitation and chronic illness. Roessler and one of his doctoral students received a $20,000 grant from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to study ways to encourage people with MS to return to work after diagnosis. Roessler, who holds the rank of University Professor in the field of rehabilitation education and research, found himself on a new career path.
“We were very pleased that our first grant was funded, and then we got another one to study MS in the workplace,” Roessler said. “Over the years, I’ve received other grants to study employment issues that kept me on this track.”
He focused the ensuing 15 years of his career on MS research and service and recently received a new grant from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to study employment and discrimination experiences of adults with MS.
“We are all just temporarily able-bodied to some extent, I think,” Roessler said. “When we see an opportunity to be helpful to someone, to empathize with their situation, it helps us all.”
Working with a Chronic Disease
Most people are diagnosed with MS during their 20s and 30s, which means many are well into their careers when the disease hits, Roessler explained. It’s common for them to decide prematurely to quit their jobs based on advice from a doctor or urging from family members before they know how the disease will affect them.
“Many people with MS leave their jobs voluntarily,” Roessler said. “It’s not uncommon that they throw up their hands, deciding they can’t deal with the hassles to contend with on the job in addition to the other challenges the illness creates.
“The stories are heartrending,” he continued. “A spouse may say, ‘I didn’t sign on for this,’ and a marriage is broken up. A single mother struggles to keep working under the stress caused by the disease.
“When you see scenarios like this, it has a big impact. Where do you start in a situation like that? It’s vital to get support to people when they first begin to see symptoms.”
A closer look at this particular disease illustrates the challenges people with many different types of disabilities face on the job. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS vary widely from one person to another.
Other problems, which may be permanent or
may come and go, include blurred vision, loss of balance, slurred speech, poor coordination, tremors, extreme fatigue and problems with memory and concentration.
MS is believed to be an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own defense system attacks myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers in the central nervous system. When any part of the myelin sheath or nerve fiber is damaged or destroyed, lesions distort or interrupt nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord, producing the variety of symptoms that can occur.
Adapting to Economic Forces
While Roessler has spent his most recent years focusing on issues for people with MS, that research is part of a larger picture. In his nearly 37 years on the faculty of the University of Arkansas, Roessler has educated rehabilitation counselors, written textbooks widely used in the field, conducted research on workplace accommodations and helped employers to recognize and address needs of workers with disabilities. He won two national awards in his field in 2004.
Now, Roessler expects his life’s work to get a boost from the U.S. economy. Baby boomers — those people born during the Post-World War II population boom between 1946 and 1964 — will start to retire in large numbers, shrinking the nation’s work force by millions. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated there were 78.2 million baby boomers as of July 1, 2005, and the oldest of these turned 60 in 2006. The generation that followed — Generation X born between 1965 and 1975 — numbered only about 40 million people.
“Retaining workers will become very important,” Roessler said. “It will be critical to remove anything that will make people want to leave the workplace. Everyone benefits when people keep working.
“The economic impetus will really help put the notion of reasonable accommodation into a new light,” he continued. “Why would you want to lose a loyal, well-trained, valuable employee?”
Providing Reasonable Accommodations
Roessler was referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act that required employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities who are otherwise qualified for a position. What many people, including employers, don’t realize, Roessler said, is that reasonable accommodations can be just that — relatively inexpensive and sometimes found to benefit all employees of a company, not just those with disabilities.
More than half of all accommodations cost less than $500, and many cost nothing at all. Finding the appropriate reasonable accommodations should be a cooperative effort between employer and employee, Roessler said, but he advises a person not to go to the supervisor with the attitude that “I’m a person with disabilities and you have to take care of me.” The latter approach is more likely to cause the employer to panic, foreseeing expensive modifications that will ruin the company.
“Employees and employers should put the focus on the assets and abilities of the person and on strategies to enhance the employee’s productivity,” Roessler said.
One result of the nerve damage caused by MS can be adverse reactions to temperature fluctuations, particularly high heat and humidity, that produce temporary worsening of the symptoms and considerable discomfort for the person, according to Roessler. Having some control of the office or workplace temperature may be all that’s needed to alleviate the symptom. Simply moving the employee to another part of the building or buying a $20 box fan could address the problem.
More sophisticated, yet not always expensive technology can address cognitive problems such as short-term memory loss. An online calendar service can be set to notify the employee of upcoming meetings or deadlines. Such calendars are a convenience that employees without disabilities come to rely upon, but they may be a necessity for those with disabilities.
Computer monitors with enlarged font and other screen enhancers are another example of technology aiding a person with disabilities.
In the case of diseases such as MS with its unpredictability, an employee may negotiate a flexible work schedule to make up time lost when having a particularly bad day. Cognitive difficulties such as trouble concentrating may be lessened if the employee can work from home. Or, the employee may need to adjust work hours by just an hour or so — coming in later in the morning and staying later in the evening — to avoid driving during rush hour.
“It’s important to say to an employer, ‘I am a person who enjoys working here and I want to talk with you about ways I can become even more productive.’ Go in with options,” Roessler said.
An employer who provides a stool to a worker with MS who collects payments at a utility company window may find that other workers are happier with the opportunity to sit down, too. In another case, reasonable accommodations for a high school teacher meant moving the teacher to a classroom closer to a bathroom and providing a microwave oven in the classroom for meals.
Surveying Employment Experiences
In April, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society notified Roessler that it would fund a one-year, $44,000 grant supporting research on the employment discrimination experiences of adults with MS. A pilot study done in Washington, D.C., depending on the responses, could evolve into a larger, two-year project with a national sample of nine or 10 geographically distinct and racially and ethnically diverse areas, Roessler said. He’s working with faculty members at the University of Florida and Kent State University on the survey of members of the National Capital Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
People with MS will be asked to describe their work experiences in general, as well as how employers and co-workers relate to them as a person with a chronic illness. One difficult decision employees must make is how much to tell an employer and co-workers about their disabilities, Roessler said.
“Some don’t want others to know anything at all,” he explained. “They fear they will be discriminated against or at least treated differently in a way that isn’t comfortable for them. That’s why disability awareness training is important for all employers.
Respondents also will be asked about specific types of discrimination they experienced.
“From this information, we can talk about prevalence and type of discrimination and then go on to discuss what to do about it,” Roessler said. “Options for the employee range from talking informally with a supervisor to filing a formal complaint. The key point is solving problems.
“Discrimination is an indication of problems and stress in the workplace and that’s not good for anyone. Stress and productivity don’t co-exist well.”