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Your legal rights in the workplace

An HR specialist helps you understand potential legal protections at work

If you are dealing with multiple sclerosis (MS), you may be experiencing a “new normal” that dictates how you manage everything from your physical well-being to personal relationships. Your job is no doubt on this list. You probably have many questions. Should you tell your employer? When? And what happens if you can no longer do your job? There is no way to predict the future, but through research and understanding what rights you may have, you can be prepared if you need to take action.

At some point you may decide to tell your employer that you have this condition, either because you need an accommodation or for other reasons. Only you will know when the time is right to talk to your manager or Human Resources. In the meantime, here are some things to think about.

Checks and Balances Scale

Am I obligated to disclose my condition?

Although everyone's situation is different, in most cases you should not be obligated to tell your employer about your MS.

However, there may be reasons to consider doing so, including:

  • You need to take more time off than your employer’s policy allows
  • Your condition or symptoms are beginning to impact your ability to work. It’s important to be honest with yourself about this—there is absolutely no shame in acknowledging difficulties resulting from your MS—and there may be advantages to talking with your manager sooner rather than later
  • You are requesting an accommodation

Be sure to check your company's policy about your obligations.

What is a “reasonable accommodation”?

The Office of Personnel Management defines reasonable accommodation as “any change to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done that allows an individual with a disability to apply for a job, perform job functions, or enjoy equal access to benefits available to other individuals in the workplace.” 

An easy example: your typical shift hours are 9 am to 4 pm, but your condition requires you to attend physical therapy from 9:30 am to 10 am every Tuesday. You may ask your employer to allow you to start work at 10:30 am every Tuesday and offer to make up the time another day. 

You may be able to request any kind of accommodation as long as it can be tied directly to your condition. Your employer will decide whether your request is “reasonable.” That means it can allow you to perform your core duties without causing hardship or costing your employer too much money to provide. Generally, if you disagree with their decision you can consider filing an appeal.

Be logical, clear, and honest with your requests. What do you truly need to perform your essential job functions? Is it an extra 15 minutes at break time to take your medication? Perhaps a stool or chair at the register so you can rest when you aren’t busy? Remember, most employers want to help and see you succeed.

What may happen if I disclose?

  • It is important for your employer to treat your disclosure confidentially
    • They should treat you with respect and be open to your requests
    • There are laws that can protect anyone from disclosing your medical information without your authorization
    • Consider being very selective with whom you tell—information is hard to control once it’s in too many hands
  • You can request a reasonable accommodation
  • You can ask for help
    • Gone are the days of “don’t bring your problems to work.” You are one person and cannot be split into “work-you” and “home-you”
    • Many employers have Employee Assistance Programs that offer lots of support options
  • You have the option to discuss your performance if you feel it is being questioned because of your condition
    • It’s important to know yourself and what you are capable of. It’s easy to lose self-confidence in the face of this challenge. If your performance is really impacted, it may be better to disclose early before your manager starts to mistake any condition-related effects for performance-related issues

Even the most open workplaces may unintentionally have practices that make it difficult to be open about your condition. However, there are laws that can provide guidance for people in these positions, and most employers act with good faith and intentions when it comes to their employees. For more information, see the ADA Facts.

What should I do if I can no longer perform?

This is a very broad question with a number of factors to consider. Depending on your location (country, state, city) and employer (private, public, union), you may have options under short- and long-term disability plans and/or the Family and Medical Leave Act. You can check with your employer for available options.

You may have some considerations or questions. Will you need to be out forever or for a defined period of time? Does your company offer return-to-work plans? Or perhaps you want to consider temporary or part-time work, consulting, or even a new career track.

The bottom line: there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are many options for people living with MS. Maintaining a positive outlook and being open are important first steps.