Life with MS

How to Stay Working

By Aundrea G. Cormier, Phillip D. Rumrill, Jr. and Malachy Bishop
Having a job is important and valued among adults in American society. On the surface, a job provides income and economic stability, but it can also give us purpose every day – a reason to get up in the morning – and it determines how we spend much of our time each week. Quite often, it is the basis of our identity and self esteem, as we find pride in the work we do. We spend at least half of our waking hours on work-related activities, making it the single most time-consuming task in our lives.

So, when a disease like multiple sclerosis affects job performance, it threatens not only a person’s financial security, but also a person’s social life and self-concept. Fortunately, legal protections at the federal level are available that can help you continue your career while living with MS. In this article, we describe the key provisions of two important laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The Americans with Disabilities Act

Enacted in 1990 and amended in 2008, the ADA was the first comprehensive legislation passed by any country in the world to specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. The ADA covers four areas of social activity: employment, public services, public accommodations, and communications. We will focus on employment.

The ADA prohibits most employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against a qualified person with a disability. This includes the job application procedures, hiring/firing practices, compensation, advancement opportunities, job training, and other employment privileges. The law requires an understanding of these key terms:

Individual with a disability: An individual with a disability is one who has (1) a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities, or has (2) a history of such an impairment, or is (3) perceived (even erroneously) as having such an impairment.
Qualified individual with a disability: An individual with a disability who meets the skill, experience, education, and other job-related requirements of a position held or desired and who, with or without reasonable accommodations, can perform the essential functions of the job.
Essential job functions: Essential job functions are those that are fundamental to the job (they require special expertise, require a large amount of time, and/or were listed in the written job description prepared before the employer advertised for or interviewed job applicants).
Reasonable accommodations: These refer to employment-related modifications that an employer makes to ensure equal opportunity for an individual with a disability to (1) apply for or test for a job; (2) perform essential job functions; and/or (3) receive the same benefits and privileges as other employees. The employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation for known disabilities (e.g. when the applicant/employee has an obvious disability or has chosen to inform the employer).
Undue hardship: An accommodation might prove to be an undue hardship for the employer if its implementation results in a significant difficulty or expense to the company. The law provides criteria that must be met for the company to claim this.
Major life activities: These activities include, but are not limited to, caring for yourself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.
Major bodily functions: These are actions that your body performs automatically, including, but not limited to, normal cell growth and functions of the immune, digestive, urinary, neurological, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive systems.

Often, people think the term “reasonable accommodation” means costly renovations such as remodeling bathrooms or installing expensive equipment. In reality, while those accommodations sometimes need to be made, most require little or no expense to the employer. For example, working from home, flexible scheduling, providing written instructions for tasks, utilizing natural lighting instead of fluorescent, installing grab bars in bathrooms, wearing noise cancelling headsets, or having a coworker assist as an on-site mentor are all inexpensive accommodations. Yet, they can allow a person with MS to remain successfully and safely employed and enable the employer to keep a valuable member of his/her team.

In order to obtain accommodations at work, you have to disclose your disability status to your employer. Once you have made your employer aware of your disability status, it is important to have open communication with him/her about what you need in order to continue to be successful in your position. You may have to educate your employer about MS along the way to get what you need, but be persistent and don’t hesitate to advocate for yourself. If you find yourself in need of resources to help with education and advocacy in your workplace, the Job Accommodation Network has MS specific information for employers and consumers alike. They can be found on the Internet at or reached by telephone at 800-526-7234.

The Family and Medical Leave Act

The FMLA ensures that eligible employees who work for covered employers will retain their jobs (the same position or an equivalent) and their group health benefits while taking up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to recover from a serious medical condition. FMLA has the added benefit of allowing an employee to have time away from work to care for a family member who is ill or injured, so this may be helpful for the spouse or family member of a person with MS.

In order to qualify for benefits under FMLA, employees must have worked at their jobs for at least one year (no less than 1,250 hours within the 12 months preceding the requested leave date) and have (or have a family member who has) a serious health condition. A serious health condition is defined as: an illness, injury, impairment, or a course of treatment that renders a person unable to perform essential job functions. It is important to note that FMLA’s definition of serious health condition is more inclusive than the ADA’s definition of disability. FMLA leave can be utilized in several ways. It can be utilized for unforeseeable circumstances, such as an exacerbation of MS.

It can also be used for a planned absence, such as an elective surgery. FMLA also allows the 12 weeks to be used in various ways. For instance, individual days may be used for doctor appointments. In an unplanned event, the law requires you to notify your employer as soon as possible. For a planned absence, the law requires you to provide a 30-day advance notice. Once you have submitted your leave request, your employer has two business days to respond. If your employer doesn’t respond within two days, you are automatically eligible for your requested leave. There are forms that your employer may request you have completed by your medical provider.

For your privacy, be aware that these conditions should be maintained in your workplace: (1) leave requests should be processed by a designated, knowledgeable person so that discussion with your supervisors and coworkers is limited; (2) only supervisors should be notified and only of limited facts related to the circumstances of your leave; and (3) records related to your medical leave must be maintained in a file separate from your personnel records. For more information regarding FMLA, please go to:

An MS diagnosis is not necessarily the end of your career. Knowing the rights, benefits, and privileges afforded to you through the ADA and the FMLA can enable you to work with your employer toward a mutually productive and beneficial professional relationship for many years to come.