For many people with the disease, IBD counts as a disability — at least under the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act. That means there rules to protect people with IBD from discrimination. One of the places where those rules are most important is work.
People changing jobs or entering the workplace often ask: “do I have to tell my boss?” The answer is ‘no’ — but it’s a little bit complicated. There are two parts to the question: first is when you are applying, second is when you have the job. And, again, this is for U.S. Law
Applying for a job
You don’t have to put your disability on your job application, cover letter, or resume. In fact, doing so can make you less likely to get an interview.
You don’t have to answer any questions about disability, either. “If you are applying for a job, an employer cannot ask you if you are disabled or ask about the nature or severity of your disability.” That’s according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — EEOC, the government body that enforces the ADA for workers.
If an employer asks whether you can perform the duties of the job, you are free to answer ‘yes’ even if you will require reasonable accommodation — and you can wait until you are hired to request reasonable accommodation.
What is reasonable accommodation? Any change that allows a qualified disabled person to do the job without imposing “significant difficulty or expense” on the employer. An employer “cannot refuse to hire you because of your disability if you can perform the essential functions of the job with an accommodation.”
That’s the law: in practice, though, employers can and often do discriminate against disabled people. The more open you are about your disability, the easier it is for employers to deny your application. Even though it’s illegal (and cruel) it can also be difficult to prove.
For example, some employers check Facebook and other online profiles. If your online presence clearly indicates that you have IBD, an employer may choose not to hire you without you ever knowing why.
On the Job
If your illness is invisible at work — if you are relatively healthy — you may choose to keep your disability secret. That’s perfectly legal. But even people who look or feel healthy can be protected by the ADA, and can request reasonable accommodation.*
Once you are hired, you can ask for reasonable accommodation. According to the EEOC: “It is also unlawful for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights under the ADA.” That means that they can’t change their minds about hiring you, once you request reasonable accommodation.
If your illness does affect your work — even a little bit — it is a good idea to tell your employer that you have a disability. Do it in writing: a letter requesting the specific reasonable accommodation you need to perform the job satisfactorily. The risk in not telling your boss is that they might try to fire you, and then pretend they did not know you were disabled. Still illegal, but easy enough to protect against.
An employer might try to change your job or add duties that were not on the original job description, as a way to push you out. This is also illegal. It’s always a good idea to ask for a very specific job description before you start work.
If you need time off to manage your illness, the ADA and another law, the Family and Medical Leave Act, entitle you to unpaid leave if certain conditions are met. You should be familiar with those laws.
If you believed you are being discriminated against, contact your area’s EEOC field office as soon as you can. You have 180 days from the date of discrimination to file a charge (although some states may give you more time).
State laws on disability vary, but for U.S. workers the ADA are the minimum protections. It’s worth checking to see if your state’s laws give you any additional protection. And, of course, for non-U.S. readers, your own country may have similar laws, too. (We’d love a summary of your country’s laws in the comments, if you have the time.)
For more information on the ADA and how it applies to employment, check out the U.S. Department of Labor’s website on the ADA.
*This sentence was added after the post was published, based on reader feedback.
Photo of ‘Lumberg’ from film Office Space (20th Century Fox, 1999).