Best practices in managing episodic disabilities

Accommodating employees at work who have physical disabilities that challenge them daily may be an obvious step, but employers need to remember that employees with episodic disabilities (both physical and mental) need to be accommodated, too. And it’s not difficult to do.

An episodic disability is marked by unpredictable periods and degrees of wellness, explained Martine Mangion, manager, episodic disabilities initiatives, with the Canadian Working Group on HIV and Rehabilitation (CWGHR), speaking recently at the Human Resources Professionals Association 2011 Annual Conference in Toronto.

“Someone doesn’t know how long they’re going to be ill and when they’re going to be ill,” she said.

While one of the bigger-picture challenges for people with episodic disabilities (e.g., arthritis, multiple sclerosis, HIV and some forms of mental illness) is access to care and quality services (e.g., urban versus rural settings and in certain geographic parts of Canada), Mangion said, there are also issues of income security and barriers to employment.

Trying to explain a two years absence from the workforce in a resumé is challenging, said Mangion. And, employees can still face stigma and discrimination once they’re in the workplace.

“[Interestingly], none of these has anything to do with the illness itself,” said Melissa Popiel, co-ordinator of HIV and episodic disability initiatives, with CWGHR, “it’s dealing with the social impact that the person is facing.”

An episodic illness can vary over time, said Popiel, so employers need a long-term perspective in terms of the changes an employee may go through and need to develop an accommodation plan, including processes to complete work during illness absences.

Accommodations needed
So what kinds of accommodation might an employee with an episodic disability need? An employee may need flexible time to be able to attend doctor’s appointments, for example. Or maybe the employee needs accommodation in the form of adaptive technology (e.g., better lighting or an ergonomic chair). Some employees may simply want peer support—someone else in the organization they can go to, to talk.

If an employee has to take medications throughout the workday, he or she may request scheduled breaks to take his or her medications in private. And, if there are side effects from medications (some can cause gastrointestinal issues), the employee may request a workstation closer to the washroom.

An employee may request part-time work with pro-rated benefits or part-time work with full benefits. Access to drug benefits becomes very important for someone with an episodic disability, Popiel said.

But benefits can help to keep employees in the workplace rather than going on short- or long-term disability, she added.

Other helpful hints
Popiel suggested some other helpful hints for employers.

  • Maintain regular contact with the employee and ask him or her if there is anything you can do to help.
  • Ensure that the employee knows the process of requesting an accommodation (e.g., Whom do I talk to? What is policy structure around this? How many sick days do I have?).
  • Be aware of resources outside of the workplace that may help the employee: an employee assistance program, the Employee Disabilities Employment Network and other disability associations, for example.
  • Educate all your employees on episodic disabilities and employment, and inform them on your organizational policies on disability and accommodation.
  • Use language that is inclusive and sensitive. For example, say, “John is living with HIV” instead of “John has HIV.” This reaffirms that the illness is something the person is living with and coping with, said Popiel. And, don’t use “suffering with.” “That’s disempowering,” she said.