After you're diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, you may worry about how your condition could affect your work life.
You can work with MS. Many people who have it stay in their job for years after they’re diagnosed. It varies greatly from person to person. In time, you may need to ask for accommodations so you can continue there. You may even find other kinds of work that you can do.
The Effects on Your Job
Now, or in the future, you may have some symptoms that make it harder to work.
MS causes inflammation in your brain. It may break down signals between your brain and your body. It could cause:
- Double vision
- Partial sight loss
- Slurred speech
- Trouble walking
- Weak or numb limbs
- Spastic, hard-to-control body movements
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
How it affects you may also depend on the type of work you do. If you get dizzy or have double vision, it’s unsafe to drive a delivery truck or operate machinery. Some people with MS find it harder to focus their thoughts. Usually, it just takes more time. Planning or analysis may also get tougher the longer you have MS.
What You Can Do
First, don’t panic. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects your right to have a job you’re qualified to do, even if you have a condition like MS.
The law allows you to ask for reasonable accommodations, so you can do your job. These tweaks can include:
- Special tools or devices
- Different work hours
- Use of unpaid leave or vacation time for medical treatment
- Changing or swapping of tasks that aren’t key to your job
- A reserved parking spot
But an employer doesn’t have to make accommodations that cause “undue hardship,” according to the ADA. The “undue hardship” standard could be different depending on the employer. What’s reasonable for a large corporation might not be possible for a small-business owner. In general, a business isn’t required to accommodate a request that:
- Is impractical
- Is more costly than something else that works as well
- Requires construction that would disrupt business
- Would cause unreasonable problems for employees or customers
The law requires that you’re able to do the main functions of your job. For example, if you’re a receptionist, the ability to answer phone calls is a basic part of the role. If MS makes it hard to use the phone, and there’s no one else to help you, you may need to find other work.
When they offer you a job, your employer may legally ask you to first get a medical exam to see if you can do the work -- to confirm whether you can safely lift heavy boxes, for example -- but only if this is something they ask of all prospective employees. You also may need to get a medical exam or provide medical information when and if you want your employer to make accommodations for your multiple sclerosis.
Once you’re hired, the ADA says your employer can’t treat you any differently because of your MS. They can’t, for example, fire you or reduce your hours just because of your disease.
Just remember that the ADA doesn’t cover everyone. It applies only to those who work for local or state government, or for a private business with more than 15 employees, and who do it for more than 20 calendar weeks per year.
If you work for the government or for a company with at least 50 employees (within 75 miles of the main office), you may qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA allows you to take unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks a year if you or a family member has a medical condition. You can take it all at once or in pieces, which might be useful for MS flare-ups.
Talk to your company HR representative about other possible options like long- or short-term disability benefits that might allow you paid time away from work.
Finally, if you have MS, you may qualify for Social Security benefits. That doesn’t mean that you can’t work at any job or that you automatically qualify for disability.
Talk with a lawyer who specializes in disability claims to find out if you're entitled to benefits.
Should You Tell Your Boss?
In some cases, you may want or need to tell your employer that you have MS.
If you have MS and apply for a new job: You don’t have to tell anyone during the interview process unless you ask for accommodations. Any employer can ask you if you’re able to do the necessary tasks. If it requires you to lift heavy boxes or type at a certain speed, you may have to show that you can do that.
If you already have a job and develop MS: You don’t have to tell your boss anything unless you ask for accommodations. Your employer does have the right to ask why you need new equipment or a change in work hours, so you’ll have to give information to back up your request.
Even if you don't ask for accommodations, you may decide to tell your employer that you have MS. If you decide to, start with a private talk. You could share things like:
- Your diagnosis
- What your doctor says
- Simple changes that may make it easier for you to do your job
Then, you may want to meet with your other co-workers to tell them. If they’ve noticed some of your symptoms, this can put them at ease. You may also want to suggest ways you can help each other with job tasks.
It’s your choice whether to stay in your current job. Your symptoms may be mild for a while, or they may go away. You might be able to control your condition with treatments, so you can work.
If your symptoms make it hard to do your job, you may need to make changes. You could:
- Work fewer hours or part-time
- Find a job you can do despite your MS symptoms
- Train for another type of work
- Find a job you can do at home or online
If you need to stop working, you can still volunteer. This can boost your pride and allow you to teach or help others.
If you're worried about the future, try something called a work self-assessment. You can take online tests to help you figure out if your MS symptoms could affect your job. These tools can help you decide which changes you need to make now, and which you may need to consider down the road.