Blogging for a Cure II

Did you know that diabetes can be considered a disability in the workplace?

It’s true — and it’s often justified.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has noted that indeed the disease can make life and work difficult for some Americans. And too many people have found themselves victimized through employment discrimination because they are diabetics.

Late last month, the EEOC released a “Frequently Answered Questions” document to help workers with diabetes and their employers know exactly how the Americans with Disabilities Act — which prohibits discrimination against the handicapped — affects their situations.

From the FAQ:

When is diabetes a disability under the ADA?

Diabetes is a disability when it substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities. Major life activities are basic activities that an average person can perform with little or no difficulty, such as eating or caring for oneself. Diabetes also is a disability when it causes side effects or complications that substantially limit a major life activity. Even if diabetes is not currently substantially limiting because it is controlled by diet, exercise, oral medication, and/or insulin, and there are no serious side effects, the condition may be a disability because it was substantially limiting in the past (i.e., before it was diagnosed and adequately treated). Finally, diabetes is a disability when it does not significantly affect a person’s everyday activities, but the employer treats the individual as if it does. For example, an employer may assume that a person is totally unable to work because he has diabetes. Under the ADA, the determination of whether an individual has a disability is made on a case-by-case basis.

When is it appropriate for an employer to ask an applicant or employee questions about her or his diabetes?

If an applicant voluntarily tells an employer that he or she has diabetes, an employer only may ask two questions: whether he or she needs a reasonable accommodation and what type of accommodation.

The ADA strictly limits the circumstances under which an employer may ask questions about an employee’s medical condition or require the employee to have a medical examination. Generally, to obtain medical information from an employee, an employer must have a reason to believe that there is a medical explanation for changes in the employee’s job performance or must believe that the employee may pose a direct threat to safety because of a medical condition. …

The fact that an applicant has diabetes may not be used to withdraw a job offer if the applicant is able to perform the fundamental duties (“essential functions”) of a job, with or without reasonable accommodation, without posing a direct threat to safety. The employer, therefore, should evaluate the applicant’s present ability to perform the job effectively and safely. After an offer has been made, an employer also may ask the applicant additional questions about his condition. For example, following an offer, an employer could ask the applicant how long he has had diabetes, whether he takes any medication, and whether the condition is under control. The employer also could send the applicant for a follow-up medical examination. An employer may withdraw an offer from an applicant with diabetes only if it becomes clear that he cannot do the essential functions of the job or would pose a direct threat (i.e., a significant risk of substantial harm) to the health or safety of himself or others.

What types of reasonable accommodations may employees with diabetes need?

Some employees may need one or more of the following accommodations:

  • a private area to test blood sugar levels or to take insulin
  • a place to rest until blood sugar levels become normal breaks to eat or drink, take medication, or test blood sugar levels
  • leave for treatment, recuperation, or training on managing diabetes
  • modified work schedule or shift change
  • allowing a person with diabetic neuropathy (a nerve disorder caused by diabetes) to use a stool.

Although these are some examples of the types of accommodations commonly requested by employees with diabetes, other employees may need different changes or adjustments. Employers should ask the particular employee requesting an accommodation because of his diabetes what he needs that will help him do his job. There also are extensive public and private resources to help employers identify reasonable accommodations. For example, the website for the Job Accommodation Network provides information about many types of accommodations for employees with diabetes.

How does an employer handle safety concerns about applicants and employees with diabetes?

When it comes to safety concerns, an employer should be careful not to act on the basis of myths, fears, or stereotypes about diabetes. Instead, the employer should evaluate each individual on her skills, knowledge, experience and how having diabetes affects her. In other words, an employer should determine whether a specific applicant or employee would pose a “direct threat” or significant risk of substantial harm to himself or others that cannot be reduced or eliminated through reasonable accommodation. This assessment must be based on objective, factual evidence, including the best recent medical evidence and advances to treat and control diabetes.

An employer may ask an employee about his diabetes when it has a reason to believe that the employee may pose a “direct threat” to himself or others. An employer should make sure that its safety concerns are based on objective evidence and not general assumptions.

Not everyone who has diabetes has an ADA-defined disability. Still, it is in an employer’s best interest to try to work with employees who have diabetes or are at risk for the disease. The benefits can be increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, and healthier lifestyles. The best advice: Treat each worker as an individual and with respect.

For information on what you can do to live a healthier life and to help spread diabetes awareness, visit the American Diabetes Association Web site. And become a Diabetes Advocate — get involved in the cause.

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