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The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

When You Have Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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Updated April 09, 2014

It can be a challenge to keep working when you have fibromyalgia (FMS) or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS). Sometimes, it can help to change certain aspects of your job. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is designed to protect your right to employment by requiring most employees to make changes -- called "reasonable accommodation" -- to help keep you working.

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The ADA requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations for people who meet the criteria of being disabled, as long as doing so does not place an undue hardship on the company. The act provides definitions of disability based more on symptom severity than on specific diagnoses.

Who Qualifies as Disabled?

Having a chronic illness like FMS or ME/CFS doesn't automatically qualify you as disabled. To be considered disabled under the ADA, you must:

  1. Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
  2. Have a record of such impairment (such as medical records or a letter from your doctor).
  3. Be regarded as having such an impairment.

Major Life Activities

The scope of what's considered a "major life activity" was broadened as of January 1, 2009. The ADA provides two lists -- one of basic abilities and one of major bodily functions.

Basic abilities include, but are not limited to: caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working.

Major bodily functions include, but are not limited to: functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine and reproductive functions.

The 2009 amendment specifies that these impairments do not need to be readily apparent from looking at or talking with someone. It also covers you when your symptoms are in remission, as long as you'd be considered disabled when symptoms were active. This is especially helpful for those of us with FMS and ME/CFS who have flares and remissions.

What is Reasonable Accommodation?

If you qualify as disabled under the ADA, you have the right to ask for reasonable accommodations from your employer. (Remember that this only applies to companies with more than 15 employees and cannot create undue hardship on the company.)

A reasonable accommodation is any change to your job or work environment that gives you equal access to employment. Examples of reasonable accommodation for symptoms of FMS or ME/CFS may include:

  • Part-time or modified work schedules
  • Changing tests, training materials or policies
  • Providing written, instead of verbal, instructions
  • Reassignment to a vacant position
  • Medical leave
  • Work from home
  • A more ergonomic work station
  • Adjustable lighting
  • Relocation of work station to a more appropriate location (i.e., quieter, warmer, closer to entrances)

It's up to you, not your employer, to come up with what accommodations would help you do your job better.

Talking to Your Employer

The ADA doesn't require a formal meeting or a written request when you talk to your employer about reasonable accommodation -- all you have to do is have a conversation in which you tell your employer about your condition and discuss what kind of accommodations would help you. It's a good idea to take notes, keep any pertinent emails, and note any dates on which you talk about ADA issues.

Once you've talked to your employer about appropriate accommodations, it's up to the company to provide those accommodations, as long as they don't cause an undue hardship.

Getting Help

To get more information about on-the-job accommodations and the ADA, you can contact the Job Accommodation Network (JAN).

If you feel you're being discriminated against or denied your rights under the ADA, contact your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or call the national number: 1-800-669-4000 (TTD: 1-800-669-6820.)

Sources:

Office of Disability Employment Policy, Job Accommodation Network. "Employees' Practical Guide to Requesting and Negotiating Reasonable Accommodations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)"

U.S. Department of Justice. "A Guide to Disability Rights Laws: Americans with Disabilities Act"

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Notice Concerning The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) Amendments Act Of 2008"

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