What is Disabled?
You do not need to be approved by Social Security to be considered disabled and offered protections under the ADA. The Americans with Disability Act defines disabled as:
“A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”
If you have ME or “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, this article has a good explanation of how ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia qualify for the ADA.
How Do I Prove to My Employer That I Am Disabled?
Ideally, both your letter and your doctor’s letter will state that you are disabled according to the ADA definition of disability.
As long as your doctor writes that you are disabled under the ADA, you have the right to protections under the ADA and the right to request reasonable accommodations. You do not need to provide any further proof.
How Do I Prove To My Employer That My Illness is Real and Legitimate?
Many of our readers with ME, CFS, MCS, Fibromyalgia, or other invisible illnesses feel that they want to convince their employer that they are really sick, or that their illness is real.
Some people try to convince their employer that they are “really sick” by sharing personal medical history or submitting research and articles about their illness. You do not need to do this and, in many cases, you do not want to do this.
Human Resources and office management staff are not doctors. They are not qualified to make medical decisions. It is not their job to judge your illness, determine if you are really disabled, or decide if your condition is legitimate. Their job is to follow employment law and process your request in accordance with the ADA.
What Can My Employer Ask?
If you are asked questions about your illness that you feel are not necessary for your accommodation, you can reply by requesting that these questions be submitted to you in writing.
There are some questions and some types of medical information an employer can legally request: Requests for Medical Information by an Employer
Tip for Answering Questions
If your employer asks you any questions about your disability, and you’re not sure what to answer of if you should answer, you can always just say: “Thank you. Please send me that question in writing and I will respond in writing.” This will often make the question disappear!
How Do I Prove That I Really Need this Accommodation?
It is very helpful if your letter and your doctor’s letter both state that the accommodations you are requesting are needed due to your disability. Ideally, both letters should clearly state a direct connection between your disability and the request.
For example, if you need your desk moved to a room away from the copy machine, you and your doctor can both confirm in writing that you have a disability of Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, being near a copy machine triggers severe symptoms for you, and you need to relocate because proximity to the copy machine interferes with your ability to do your job.
You do not need to disclose your treatment plan or medical history or prove that people with your condition “really” do get sick from being near copy machines.
Can My Employer Deny My Request?
Your employer can turn down your request for some reasons.
No, your employer does not have the right to decide what your needs are. If you and your doctor state that you have a disability need, they do not have the right to question whether this is true or decide that this is not true.
Yes, your employer does have the right to decide what their needs are. They can decide that your request is too expensive, will create too much extra work for other employees, or will hinder their business in other ways. This is often called “Undue Hardship.” Obviously, they should only declare undue hardship if your accommodation would truly create hardship. If not, you can file a complaint against them.
Your employer does not have to say yes or no. They have the right to try to negotiate with you to try to get both your needs and their needs met. They can propose alternative accommodations, and you can also propose alternatives. This is called “interactive process.”
If your employer offers an interactive negotiation process, you should say yes. You may be able to request the process be done in writing, if you wish. If your employer suggests a specific alternative accommodation that you know will not work for you, you have the right to say: “No, that alternative will not meet my disability needs.”
Remember, if you aren’t sure how to respond to something, you can always give no response and ask for the question in writing.
Let’s go back to the example of the copy machine:
Your employer cannot deny your request because they feel that:
- You are not disabled
- Your diagnosis is not a real disability
- Being near a copy machine is not really making you sick.
If they say any of these things, you can feel free to ignore this and just say, “Thank you. Please put that in writing and send it to me” or you can email them and state “I was not provided with a written reason for the denial of my accommodation. Please provide me with a reason in writing.”
Your employer say deny your request because they determine that:
- There are no other rooms without copy machines, and it will be difficult or impossible to run their company without a copy machine in every room (if this is true).
- You will be unable to complete your job tasks on time without being next to a copy machine (if this is true)
- The only rooms without copy machines are being used for specific tasks that cannot be relocated and cannot be properly completed if your desk is moved there (If this is true)
- Moving to another room will cause another type of undue hardship for their company (if this is true).
Either you or your employer can propose alternative accommodations: For example:
- The copy machine could stay where it is, and you could move
- You could stay where you are, and the copy machine could move
- Someone else could handle copies and you could take over one of their least-favorite job duties
- Your employer could purchase a different type of copy toner that doesn’t trigger your symptoms
- Items from a supply closet could move to your office, and the copy machine could move to the supply closet
Learn more about how to make an accommodation request: Sample Letter for Requesting a Disability Accommodation in the Workplace