Americans with Disabilities Act
There are two laws that affect your rights as an employee, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Under the ADA, a qualified individual with a disability cannot be discriminated against and is entitled to reasonable accommodations. A "disability" is a substantial impairment of a major life activity. Walking, talking, seeing, hearing, writing, reading -- these are major life activities, but so are bodily functions like bowel, digestion, and the immune system. And of critical importance to employees with chronic illnesses, the law says that episodic illnesses -- illnesses that come and go -- are disabling even when the employee is in remission if they would be disabling when active. So, for example, if an employee has ulcerative colitis that would substantially impair the major life activities of bowel and digestive function when the disease is active, she is considered disabled even when the disease is in remission.
Even if you have a disability under the ADA, though, you also have to be a "qualified individual" to be covered by the ADA. To be a qualified individual, you have to be able to perform the essential functions of the job. If attendance is an essential function of your job - for example, if you work in customer service or a call center - and your problem is that you have a problem with absenteeism, you may not be covered by the ADA. (But see the discussion of the FMLA, below).
Assuming, though, that you have a "disability" and you are a "qualified individual," then you are entitled to a discrimination-free workplace, and reasonable accommodations. What constitutes a reasonable accommodation differs from one situation to the next. Common examples are ergonomic chairs, computer keyboards, glare screens, voice activated computers - technology allows many disabilities to be accommodated easily and without too much expense. Less common reasonable accommodations may be working certain hours, eating small meals several times per day, increased bathroom breaks, and so on. The law does not tell employers what accommodations they have to provide. Instead, the law says that the employer and employee must engage in an interactive process, a negotiation, to try to work out a plan of accommodation.
If you believe you have been discriminated against or your employer refuses to engage in an interactive process to fashion accommodations, you might want to file a complaint. You may file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or with your state human rights agency. You have 180 days from the act of discrimination to file a complaint. You cannot file a lawsuit without first filing a complaint.
Please note that discrimination cases are very hard to win. The fact that you are being treated a certain way and that you are disabled may not be enough. You need to show that the reason you are being treated differently is your disability. This is a hard test to meet. But if you feel that you are being treated differently than all the healthy people in your workplace, then filing a charge is the next step.
• Jennifer Jaff, Know Your Rights: Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Employment.
• Can My Boss Do That: Excellent info about your protections as an employee.
• Department of Justice website on the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Advocacy for Patients has not had direct experience with all of these, but we urge you to explore them -- and please share your feedback so we can evaluate the various organizations.