We've all heard the stories about terminally-ill people who valiantly went to work every day until the day they died.
And then there are those disabled people who apply for Disability benefits.
I'm going to say something that some of you don't want to hear, but which the disabled community has wanted to get out for years. The difference is not in the work ethic of the employee, but the compassion of the employer.
Most people applying for Disability benefits would love to still be at work, but their employers don't want them any more. Maybe it's prejudice. Maybe they're perceived to be a worker's comp claim waiting to happen. Or maybe they just aren't able to produce at a level satisfactory to their employer.
Once you're disabled, your chances of getting a new job – even one you're eminently qualified for – drop dramatically. The Americans with Disabilities Act is supposed to guarantee you equal treatment in hiring, but for many disabled applicants, all it means is that the employer comes up with a reason other than your disability not to hire you.
There's also some misunderstanding in the general public about what ADA promises. You are not entitled to a job that you cannot do on equal footing with other employees. If the job description requires typing 85 WPM and your disability limits you to 15, you can't use your disability to get around that requirement. The employer has every right to expect you to produce just as much as everyone else once the necessary accommodations are made.
I would love to go back to work, but the law is quite clear that the accommodations that I would need (starting with "work when able") are not considered "reasonable accommodations" under ADA. It isn't that I didn't try diligently to get a new job, but that interviews that were going really well ended on the spot when I brought up the need for accommodations.
I've been on both sides of this story. In 1987, I had an employer willing to keep me on the payroll, even though I was only able to work part-time and not working at full capacity when I was there. I "bravely battled" my disease (which had not yet been diagnosed) and "was dedicated to my job". They had the legal right to fire me for excessive absenteeism, tardiness and frequently leaving early, but chose to take care of a long-time employee who was considered an irreplaceable asset to the company.
In 2000, I was just as "dedicated to my job" and just as "bravely battling" my disease, but my employer was not as dedicated to me, and even though I was absent only 2 days because I was so dedicated to trying to work despite increasing symptoms, they fired me. Under ADA, they were legally permitted to do so. There was no "reasonable accommodation" possible to increase my productivity. There wasn't even an unreasonable accommodation that would have allowed me to keep up the workload when simply getting to work left me exhausted and in need of an hour nap.
My personality didn't change in the intervening years. My work ethic didn't change. The only thing that changed was my employer, and my employer's attitude. This one had an eye on the bottom line, and I wasn't contributing enough to justify my salary.
That's the reality of it. Next time you're inclined to throw in a disabled person's face that he ought not expect Disability benefits because your cousin's neighbor worked until the morning of her final hospitalization, you should instead throw that in the face of the callous employer who fired him. If every employer were willing to be humanitarian toward disabled employees, there would be a lot fewer people forced to swallow their pride and apply for Disability. Employers who won't let willing disabled employees continue working to the best of their ability deserve scorn far more than those rare lucky disabled employees deserve praise for having a compassionate employer who didn't fire them in the same situation.
If every employer were as compassionate as those whose employees are allowed to continue working until the day they die, there would be a lot fewer people applying for Disability benefits. If my husband hadn't accepted a job in another city, forcing me to change jobs, I don't doubt that I would still be employed by the firm that put people before profits. Unfortunately, you can't legislate morality, or compassion.
And, equally unfortunately, people are always willing to assume the worst about a disabled person who has been forced to swallow his or her pride to apply for Disability benefits. They're not lazy – doing their very best is simply not good enough for employers to want to pay them.
Dr. Mark Loveless, an infectious disease specialist and head of the CFS and AIDS Clinic at Oregon Health Sciences University, proclaimed that a CFIDS patient "feels every day significantly the same as an AIDS patient feels two months before death."