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Education on disability may ease friction

Coach's Corner--December 1, 2008

The Client
Name: Beth
Age: 47
Time at company:  15 years 
Industry: Banking
Issue: Managing an "invisible disability"

Q. I suffer from hemiplegic migraines, an "invisible disability" that is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, management and co-workers seem to question my requests for accommodation. I feel like the poster child for "difficult" employees. Without getting on a soapbox, how can I make them aware that my condition is entitled to the same consideration as more visible disabilities?

A. Even if your employer provides all the accommodation to which you are entitled by law, interpersonal relationships at work might still be troublesome. Let's leave the legal issues for an employment law specialist and concentrate on the interpersonal factors.

The inner game
Before reaching out to co-workers, look inward. How are you managing your feelings about your condition? Living with a chronic condition can elicit anger, frustration, even loss of self-esteem. Acknowledge any negative feelings so that they don't interfere with the positive aspects of your life.

Define your ideal situation. Given the realities you face, how would you like the workplace to be? Go beyond the physical aspects and visualize the personal side -- the support and sense of teamwork -- that you'd like to have.

Review your behavior. If you want an environment where your needs are met with kindness and support, look at your own approach. Would someone outside the situation give you high marks for sharing information and building relationships, or do you appear adversarial? This is the part you can control.

Set your boundaries. Determine how much you're comfortable sharing about the facts of your condition and your feelings about it. The more you can stretch those boundaries, the better able your colleagues might be to empathize. Find a balance between too safe and too risky.

The outer game
With an unusual condition like yours, information is a powerful ally.

Become a teacher. Before reading your letter, I didn't know about the profound effects of this condition. Some people may be willing to do research to learn about your disability. But most will need you to bring information to them in manageable bites.

Your teaching methods will depend on your style and comfort level. You may want to offer a "lunch and learn" session to provide information about the condition. You may prefer to talk one-on-one or in smaller groups. Consider making a fact sheet available. The purpose would be to help people understand your condition and the related accommodations.

Make it personal. It's one thing to explain facts, and another to share what the experience feels like. For most people, knowing that a noisy air-clearing device can prevent a devastating migraine gives them a reason to be tolerant. Whenever appropriate, use a bit of humor to cut any tension. It'll also help to hear that you're taking these steps in order to be a productive member of the team.

Show your appreciation. Let your colleagues know that their support is valuable and that you appreciate them. Make your comments concrete and specific. Where you can, find ways to offer kindness back.

The last word
Even if there's legal compliance with the ADA, it's still critical to tend to the personal side of managing a disability. Doing what you can will help you and your team work together more successfully.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted November 30, 2008
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