One of the many challenges for someone living with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease (PD) is figuring out how to deal with the matter of employment. The ability to work, how long they will be able to work, and whether or not they will be discriminated against if they inform their employer about their condition are the most common concerns expressed by people with Parkinson’s.
Working with Parkinson’s Disease
As is the case with almost every issue related to a diagnosis of PD, the ability to maintain employment will vary by individual. The majority of people go on to work for many years after learning they have Parkinson’s. Others are not as fortunate. Some jobs may present too much of a physical challenge for a person living with PD, while others might be too fast-paced and stressful. The extent to which a person will be able to remain in their current position will be determined by a combination of these factors.
One resource that can help Parkinson’s patients with a desire to continue working is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). The network offers free advice and confidential guidance to those living with a disability. Their support covers educating employees on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), offering counseling on employment possibilities, and more.
Understanding the Federal Laws that Protect Employees
There are two different laws which help protect employees living with a chronic illness like Parkinson’s disease: the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
- The Americans with Disabilities Act
This federal law prohibits employment discrimination against those living with a disability. The requirements under the ADA are that “one must have a disability or have a relationship or association with an individual with a disability. An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”
The ADA requires employers who have 15 or more employees to make reasonable accommodations for disabled workers as long as the employee can perform the essential duties of their job and the accommodations don’t create “undue hardship to the company.” The courts have interpreted reasonable accommodations to include issues such as allowing time off for health care appointments or adapting a workspace to meet physical impairments. One caveat to note is that the law does not list specific illnesses or health conditions that may qualify an individual for safe shelter under ADA.
- Family and Medical Leave Act
Companies with 50 or more workers must comply with the conditions established under FMLA. The law requires companies to allow workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period to care for family members or for their own health needs. This allows workers to take time for health care appointments and treatments without fear of losing their job or their employer-sponsored health care insurance.
To Tell or Not to Tell
Fear of discrimination if an employee tells an employer about their diagnosis is very real for people with Parkinson’s disease. While federal statutes are designed to protect workers, many fear an employer will find a reason to get rid of them that is outside the scope of their protections under the law. The drawback, however, is that failing to disclose an illness keeps an employee from being protected. To be covered, the employee must inform their employer of the illness.
If an employee chooses not to disclose their illness for a while, they should be mindful of how apparent your symptoms are. If they have no overtly apparent symptoms, it may not be difficult to wait. As the illness progresses though, co-workers may notice changes and misinterpret them. For example, some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease may make a person appear to be drunk.
Financial Support for the Disabled
When someone with PD reaches the point in their disease process where continuing to work is impossible, they may be eligible for social security disability benefits. It may be by meeting the Social Security Administration’s medical listings requirements or it could be for what are known as the medical-vocation guidelines. These guidelines are more commonly referred to as the med-voc rules.
If a person with PD meets the specific criteria provided in the Social Security Administration’s medical listing 11.06, Parkinsonian syndrome, they may be granted benefits. In order to qualify, they will be required to show that they experience:
“Significant rigidity, bradykinesia, or tremor in two extremities, which, singly or in combination, result in sustained disturbance of gross and dexterous movements, or gait and station.”
Bradykinesia means that movements are slow.
To qualify under the med-voc rules, a person with PD will need to show that their condition severely and significantly limits their ability to perform work-related activities. The reviewers will consider the physician’s input and other evidence to determine a patient’s residual functional capacity (RFC). The RFC classification system is used to evaluate if someone is able to work and how much.