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Approaching your Boss with Disability Accommodation Requests

Dawn Wooten
By Dawn Wooten
May 18, 2017
An illustration of two people talking.

In the United States, more than half of all adults have at least one chronic illness. Odds are, someone you work with deals with the symptoms of a chronic illness every day. But if that disability isn’t disclosed, how can we help one another?


Fear of Termination

Many people with chronic illness are afraid to disclose it to their employers out of fear of being fired. However, it is important that your employer knows about your condition so that he or she can make necessary accommodations under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

As a person with multiple disabilities, I have to let my bosses know what is going on with my health. Side effects of medications, changing treatments, and having flare-ups are a part of my life. If I am going to be a successful employee, I have to have those conversations.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

My employers over the past fifteen years have been both accommodating and, well, not so accommodating. The ugliest was when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder while I worked for a large call center operation.

My boss at the time had no patience for sick people and was very inflexible about the need to treat my condition. He was far more interested in our group’s productivity than about my (or anyone else’s) overall well-being. I was so angry and frustrated with his attitude!

Thankfully, my boss was replaced shortly thereafter. My new supervisor was very supportive, and she gave me the flexibility I needed to start my treatments. Had that not occurred, my next step would have been a conversation with my Human Resources representative.


Fighting the Fight

When you have a difficult boss, do not fight the uphill battle alone. Go to your Human Resources department and inform them of the situation. It is their job to make certain all department heads are abiding by the relevant ADA requirements.

More importantly, don’t let fear stop you from disclosing this important information. Your boss needs to be in the know.


Approaching the Boss

If you have been in your job for a while, you know your boss. You need to choose the best time of day to approach him or her. Is your boss a morning person or someone who needs a cup of coffee before diving into a conversation?

You also should not just pop in for a conversation like this. Make an appointment to discuss your situation. Bring any relevant documentation from your physician to help your boss understand what you are going through and how it will affect your job performance.

While bosses can certainly be intimidating people, just remember that they are human beings too. They have their good and bad days, they may know someone with a disability, or they may even have a disability themselves.


Build your Confidence

To build up your confidence for the conversation, review your work history.

  • How have your evaluations been?
  • Have you won awards for your work?
  • How long have you faithfully served the company?
  • Has your attendance been stellar up to this point?

Immerse yourself in the positives about your job performance.


At the Meeting

When you go to the meeting, remember the positive things you have reviewed. Present the information regarding your condition in a professional manner and answer any questions your boss may have about how your condition will affect your work.

Be open and honest about how often you will need time off for appointments or treatments. Ask if you can make up the time you may miss by working weekends or extra hours.

I was once teaching a class two days per week, and my condition flared up. I immediately made an appointment with my writing director to discuss my options. We talked about different ways I could still teach the class while opening up the time I would need for appointments and rest.

We came to a great compromise that worked not only for me, but also worked very well for my students. We met one day a week on campus and one day a week online. This gave me much needed flexibility, and my students only had to come to campus once a week instead of twice.


After the Meeting

Once you and your boss have come to an understanding, it is crucial that you work together to create a plan to address your issues. Get it in writing! A written plan protects both you and the employer. It prevents misunderstandings and allows everyone to keep the lines of communication open.


What if things Change?

The problem with disabilities is that they change over time. A condition that may have been slightly bothersome in the beginning could become a major issue a few months or years down the road.

With my autoimmune disorder, I can be fine, functioning at almost 100% for months at a time. Then, without warning, a flare up can knock me down for weeks. That was information I shared at the very beginning of my tenure as an adjunct professor.

When things did go downhill, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone. It became a problem we simply had to solve together. My openness from the beginning made the conversation with my boss much easier. My colleagues even jumped in to help!


Don’t go it Alone

We are all human. We all have fears and doubts. Keeping vital information secret, trying to work around a disability without telling anyone, or letting your boss see an extreme change in your behavior with no explanation is not the way to go.

Your employer is not the enemy – they are your greatest asset in helping you with the new challenges a disability will bring. 


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Dawn Wooten has her Master of Arts in Rhetoric and Composition and six years of teaching experience. Her unusual style of teaching composition (large doses of humor mixed with a firm, but steady hand) led students to take additional courses with her – those she admired as her “repeat offenders”. Dawn has taught at Purdue University at Fort Wayne (formerly IPFW), University of Saint Francis, Indiana Tech, Ivy Tech Community College, and Brown Mackie. Dawn is an avid reader, published poet, and proud wife and mom. 

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