If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you may worry about its impact on your work. Maybe you’re finding it harder to complete your tasks. You may worry that your employer may use your RA as an excuse not to promote you, or even to fire you.
Changes to your duties and/or workplace accommodations may allow you to keep working. You also have some legal protections on the job.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents any employer with 15 or more workers from discriminating against you if you have a disability. The ADA considers a disability to be any physical or mental impairment that interferes with life activities, such as work. RA meets these criteria.
How Can RA Affect My Ability to Work?
RA can cause swelling, pain, and stiffness in your joints. This may make it hard for you to do things like reach, lift, or pull. Some examples of how RA can affect you at work include:
- You may be uncomfortable sitting or standing for long periods.
- You may find it hard to write or type, especially for long periods, if your RA affects your fingers, hands, or wrists. It may be hard to grasp items.
- You may have side effects from medications used to treat your RA, such as dizziness, drowsiness, fatigue, and nausea.
How Can I Keep Working if I Have RA?
Some people find it tough to stay on the job with RA. But there are a few things you can do to make it easier:
Get your symptoms under control. If you’re not on medication already, start it. Research shows that people who start drug treatment within 3 months of diagnosis are able to stay more productive at work. Stick to your medication schedule and, if your symptoms don’t improve, talk to your doctor. People with RA who manage their symptoms well are less likely to need to retire early.
Ask for accommodations. The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities. These may include:
- Steps to make your workplace accessible
- Ergonomic equipment, such as a special keyboard or voice recognition software
- A modified work schedule, such as an earlier or later start, or the chance to work from home part or all of the time
- Allowing you to have medical leave
What Are Some Accommodations I May Need if I Have RA?
If you need workplace accommodations, let your employer know ASAP. Do this even if you’re not sure what sort of accommodation will help. Your employer is legally required to work with you to help find solutions. Options include:
- Voice-to-text software
- Extra time to complete paperwork
- Grip aids
- Help with moving objects
- Movement breaks to relieve pain and stiffness
- A sit/stand workstation so you can alternate between the two
- A computer positioned at eye level to prevent neck strain
- Work tools within arm’s reach so you don’t have to bend to get them
- An ergonomic keyboard and mouse
- An ergonomic/adjustable office chair (Ideally, it should swivel, have lumbar support, and at least a 1-inch gap between the edge of the seat and the backs of your knees when you sit back.)
One of the most important things you may need is a flexible work arrangement. This might include:
Flexible hours. If you have more energy at certain times of the day, you might request earlier or later start and finish times. Many employers provide this option as long as employees can ensure their work is done.
Work from home. Your company may be able to provide technology that gives you access to everything you need to get your work done from home. You could even find that you’re more productive when you don’t have to waste energy commuting.
When you make an accommodations request, put it in writing and present it to your supervisor, human resources representative, or both. It should include the following information:
- That you have a disability that entitles you to ADA protections
- Your specific limitations that interfere with work
- Your accommodation ideas (This should be the main focus of your letter.)
What if I Think I’m Being Discriminated Against?
When you’re interviewing for a job, or have been hired for one, you don’t have to tell your employer that you have RA, even if you do ask for accommodations later on. Your employer also cannot:
- Refuse to hire or promote you
- Fire or demote you
- Harass you (for example, make jokes or negative comments about your RA)
- Pay you less because of your disability
Your employer has the right to deny an accommodation if it poses an “undue hardship” for the company. But they still have to try to work with you to find a solution. If you do get an accommodation denial, write a letter to your employer asking why, and request a meeting to discuss other options. Sometimes, employers will reconsider or offer an alternative.
If you’ve exhausted all avenues and believe your rights have been violated, you can:
- File a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state fair employment practices agency. You may need to do this within 180 days.
- Contact a disability rights lawyer. Your local Bar Association may be able to help you find someone. You can get more information here.
What if I Can No Longer Work?
As many as a third of all people with RA have to stop work within a decade after they’re diagnosed with the condition. You can apply for Social Security disability benefits, but keep in mind that your disability has to be so serious that it prevents you from holding any sort of job.
To apply, you need to provide:
- Evidence from your doctor. This may include X-rays, MRIs, bloodwork, clinical exam notes, and a detailed treatment history.
- A description of your disability and where and when you’ve gotten treatment
- A detailed work history
- A thorough explanation of your ability to perform activities of daily life, such as dressing yourself or driving. This will help Social Security determine whether you can do other forms of work.
You can apply in person at your local Social Security office, on the phone (800-772-1213), or online (ssa.gov/benefits/disability). If you work with a disability attorney or advocate, this may make it easier for your claim to be accepted.