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Working After a Sudden Disability

Working After a Sudden Disability

For your working life, you’ve operated like everyone else. But what happens when you have a sudden disability -- like a spinal cord or brain injury? To what extent can you -- or should you -- modify your work?

“People need time to recover physically, of course, but they also have to adjust psychologically,” says Barbara Trader, executive director of TASH, an advocacy organization for people with disabilities. “Some people decide they don’t want to go through whatever is needed to return to their old job. In that case, they should work with vocational rehabilitation professionals to figure out a new job or career path.”

But for many people, returning to a familiar workplace -- with all its human connections -- is a crucial part of recovery. Consultation with a wide range of professionals, from physical rehabilitation specialists to mental health therapists, as well as with supervisors and colleagues, can smooth the way back to a successful return.

Returning to Work

“All people need time to recover and envision a life they consider valuable,” Trader says. “But the sooner they start preparing to return, the better. The longer a person stews about what’s next, the longer it takes to get back in a job. So both physical and psychological rehabilitation right after a major injury is important.”

What about less severe injuries, like broken bones? Though not permanent conditions, they nonetheless can be disruptive to workplace productivity.

“The first step is to identify how you can function best at your job level,” Trader says. That may mean asking for certain tasks to be reassigned or for a reduced workweek. You could request workplace accommodations like modifications to the height of your workstation, rearrangement of your cubicle to fit a wheelchair, or special computer software or hardware.

Yet the most common modifications are not physical or structural, says David Fram, director of EEO and ADA services for the National Employment Law Institute. They involve policies and procedures, such as where breaks can be taken and for how long or how to adapt a schedule to accommodate treatment.

Reasonable Accommodations

When should an employee ask for such job modifications? It is important for an employee to ask as soon as possible for what Fram calls “reasonable accommodations,” rather than wait until his performance suffers. Employers do not have to retroactively forgive performance problems. However, courts have ruled that employees need not be specific about their needs. Once an employee makes her condition known, it is up to the employer to analyze the workplace, determine job functions and devise necessary accommodations.

An employer does not have to accommodate “essential tasks.” For example, it is essential for dockworkers and luggage handlers to lift heavy items. Employees who are no longer able to perform those tasks are not guaranteed jobs. However, they can request reassignment to managerial or administrative positions -- only if there are vacancies and only if they are qualified.

Many people for whom travel is an important part of their jobs find themselves derailed by a sudden injury. Creative solutions abound, including teleconferencing, shifting travel duties to a colleague, shipping materials separately so the employee does not have to tote them around and booking nonstop flights instead of those with connections.

Similarly, while regular, reliable attendance is considered an “essential task,” employees with sudden injuries -- whether temporary or permanent -- might be able to work from home, either fully or partially.

What Constitutes a Disability?

While the law protects workers with disabilities, not everyone with a physical problem qualifies as “disabled” under the law. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a physical problem must be long-term and “substantially limit” life activities. By that definition, a broken leg does not qualify. In addition, the ADA covers only companies with at least 15 employees. Workers who become suddenly disabled should check with their human resources department, because some companies’ policies are more generous than ADA provisions.

The Family and Medical Leave Act allows workers to take up to 12 weeks off per year without losing jobs or health insurance. However, it applies only to companies with 50 or more employees.

Though worrying about the future is natural, experts say employees who want to continue working can usually do so -- quite productively, in fact. Trader mentions a ventilator-dependent judge who still tries cases. Those stories are more prevalent than many people realize, she says.

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