Accommodations and Rheumatoid Arthritis: Making Work Easier

Working can be physically demanding when you have a chronic illness like rheumatoid arthritis (RA). As a person with a chronic illness or disability, you are entitled to workplace accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Accommodations are adjustments to the way you work so you can do your job. In other words, changing how you work, but not the goal. These types of adjustments can involve equipment or flexibility in how you work, or both.

Accommodations must be reasonable

There are two important elements in determining how changes can be applied to your job. First, accommodations must be reasonable. That is, providing you with adjustments to the job will not constitute undue hardship for your employer. Undue hardship may be financial if the accommodation requires changes that are very expensive. If the accommodation is disruptive to the workplace, this may also qualify as undue hardship.

The cost of accommodations

A major obstacle to getting the accommodations you need can be the perception that it will be expensive. This is usually not the case. In fact, a third of all accommodations cost nothing, 50 percent cost less than $500, and almost 90 percent of accommodations cost less than $1,000. This means that the majority of employers will be able to provide accommodations for their staff without claiming undue financial hardship.

Essential functions of the job

The second requirement for accommodation is that you will be able to perform the essential functions of the job. These are the parts of the job that you must be able to do to hold the position. If you can’t perform those tasks, even with reasonable accommodation, you will not be able to have that type of job. For instance, if you use a wheelchair, you can’t be accommodated in the job of a firefighter, but could likely perform the essential requirements of an office job.

Identifying essential functions

Before you approach your boss on this issue, prepare by doing your own assessment of the essential functions of your job. If you have a copy of your job description, this can help you narrow down what is essential. Look at the goals of your job, rather than how they get done. For instance, a typing speed of 40 wpm is about how many words a minute you can produce, not that you get there by typing on a keyboard.

Where do you need accommodation?

The next step is to find out where you may need accommodation. Your employer may have staff who are experts in these kind of solutions, but knowing what is difficult for you before you approach your employer can be beneficial. Think about the tasks of your job. Do you experience fatigue? Is your workstation problematic? Is standing difficult? Do you have pain when you sit? Do your hands have trouble holding or grasping the tools you use for work?

Types of accommodation for arthritis

Using equipment to accommodate you at work can include ergonomic workstation design and tools such as anti-fatigue matting, hand controls for a vehicle, voice recognition software so you dictate instead of type, a box under the desk to elevate your feet. Flexibility modifications can include a parking space close to the front door, the ability to work from home, and breaks to rest or walk around. There are many more types of accommodations for arthritis.

How to ask for accommodation

When you ask your employer for modification, you only have to specify that it is related to a medical condition. You can ask verbally in plain English, or write a letter. If you experience difficulties, it may be best to communicate in writing. Your employer is entitled to get more information and medical documentation of your need.


The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has a lot of information about accommodation for both employers and employees. This includes types of accommodation, how to ask for and negotiate accommodation, and how to write written requests for accommodations. You can also speak to a JAN consultant for free. If you experience significant problems, you may wish to consult a lawyer. There are a number of websites that can help you locate one in your area.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.