Resources for People Working with Rheumatoid Arthritis

  • Earlier this month, we posted an interview with Gayle Backstrom, author of I'd Rather Be Working: a Step-By-Step Guide to Financial Self-Support Review with Chronic Illness. Gayle kindly agreed to answer a few questions from our users about working with a chronic illness.

    Susan asks:
    The demands and stressors of full-time elementary teaching finally exacerbated my RA symptoms beyond tolerance and I have been on disability this entire school year. A totally knee replacement and a much more relaxed lifestyle has me feeling so much better that I'm considering returning to the classroom. I feel that a few specific accommodations could really help me succeed at staying in the classroom successfully, i.e. Dragon software, reduced duties (recess, bus duty, etc.), longer lunch break, help with tasks which require standing on foot stools like putting up bulletin boards, student work, etc. I have looked over the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) website and can't seem to find anything specifically outlining an employer's responsibility for providing accommodations other than the physical design of the building. Do you know of anything in the ADA or other guidelines regarding this type of accommodation? Can you give me advice on the best way to approach my employer?

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    I suggest that your first step should be to the JAN NETWORK (Job Accommodation Network). The JAN Network is available to employers, individuals and others seeking information on accommodations for those with disability. JAN does not charge those individuals who seek information on a particular physical or intellectual disability. They work with those individuals on a one-on-one basis to develop job accommodation ideas and how to request an accommodation under the ADA law.


    While the ADA does not maintain a list of disabilities, it is directed at those individuals who need assistance in performing every day activities of daily living. JAN offers suggestions for those with particular disabilities. Follow the link for individuals and on to the "Accommodation Ideas". There will be a breakdown for those with arthritis including suggestions on how to meet your needs.


    Remember that neither the ADA nor JAN can GUARANTEE you a job or that your employer will work with you. Unfortunately, when the economic has forced many people out of work, your employer will literally be operating from a position of strength. That means that he can find all the employees he needs without having to make any accommodations. There are some who will step up and "do the right thing" and others who will go with what is simpler and easier for them.


    I realize that may sound cynical. I prefer to call it the "real world". Do your homework on your needs. Talk with one of the counselors at JAN and develop a plan for how your physical needs can be met, at a very reasonable cost (the average cost of accommodations is less than $500).


    Just off the top of my head, have you considered a volunteer who can help with your bulletin boards, etc.?


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    Good luck. Gayle


    Fridawrites asks:
    I'm needing to return to the workforce and am worrying about a couple of issues.

    I've found several job openings that are ideal for me in the long term, bringing in enough salary to help me support our family, but for which I appear greatly "overqualified" (advanced degrees). Do you have an opinion about mentioning disability/needing to work in a different field as the reason for which I am applying? I'm afraid the applications will be dismissed without a real look at them.

    Should I wait for a job offer before I ask about accommodations such as 50% work at home (poor seating tolerance)? I'd don't want a potential emmployer to feel surprised and upset by requests though I know legally I am not obligated to do so earlier. I am having problems finding work that is specifically telecommuting other than medical transcription (expensive course first).

    There may be quite a few jobs for which you are overqualified. I have read of many professionals applying for jobs such as maids or gardeners in the current economy because they can't find anything in their own field. So, in that respect, you are not alone.

    I would suggest that you check out the JAN website I mentioned to Susan which will give you a lot of ideas.


    I would not ask for accommodations at the job interview. When a job offer is made, you may mention your disability, if it is not a visible one. One source (I can't remember which one.) stated that employers rarely start new employees out working at home. This is something that goes to employees who have proven themselves as dependable, hardworking individuals. That doesn't mean you aren't such an employee; it is just that these individuals have a record with the company.


    Personally, I applied at a local university as an adjunct instructor. I was well qualified and had experience teaching at other local colleges. I was using a manual wheelchair at the time. I went to see where the classroom before the session started and found how I would have to go in order to bypass steps and curbs. It turned out that one of my students met me at the parking lot every class day and pushed me around to the classroom. I completed the semester without any absences and with very good reviews on my class feedback.


    I don't know if I have been helpful or not. I do suggest that you go to JAN and see what accommodations they recommend for your disability. Remember that not everyone is the same when it comes to what we can do physically or even mentally (especially when we are on a lot of pain medications). What we do need to do is just the best that our bodies will allow us; including sometimes pushing yourself a bit for something you really want.


    Good luck.



    I'd like to thank Gayle for taking the time to share her knowledge with us.  I can highly recommend her book if you're working, need other ways to work to accommodate your RA or are looking into changing careers.

Published On: June 02, 2009