Parkinson's and Employment
Will Parkinson's disease affect my ability to work?
Like every other activity in your life, the extent to which Parkinson's disease may affect your ability to work depends on the type and severity of your symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms interfere with the duties of your particular job. There are some Parkinson's patients who are still working 20 years after diagnosis. Others have been unable to continue in their jobs after a year or two. For example, if you are a house painter and have balance problems, climbing a ladder may be dangerous. Generally speaking, most people can expect to be able to work for several years before Parkinson's disease substantially interferes with their ability to function.
Am I protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act
Job protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is available only if you are "disabled," inform your employer of your disability, and request a "reasonable accommodation" to allow you to continue to do your job at a satisfactory level. At the same time, many people understandably prefer to keep their personal and professional lives separate, out of fear that if they tell their employer, they will be eventually be terminated on some pretext that disguises the employer's real reason -- the employee's Parkinson's disease.
Parkinson's disease in its advanced stages is recognized by the federal government as a disability, allowing those affected to secure the protections of the ADA. The actual determination of disability is made by the individual states according to federal standards. However, because the ADA requires an individual to be impaired in some material way affecting his daily life, not every Parkinson's patient will meet the standards set. If one seeks a determination at an early stage of the disease, it is unlikely that the claim will meet the standards of an accepted disability.
An additional note on the ADA, from the Houston Business Journal: "Since Congress passed the ADA in 1990, courts have attempted to juggle the sweeping statutory and regulatory text, the realities of the workplace and the ADA's mandate to protect the disabled. The courts have, for the most part, narrowed the viable claims under the ADA. As a result, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has experienced an annual decrease in the number of disability charges it receives, and the percentage of federal cases in which plaintiffs have prevailed under the ADA has decreased annually. It is likely that this trend will continue." (Ted Meyer, February 2002.)
Should I tell my employer, and if so, when?
Each situation is different and much depends on your relationship with your boss or employer. But spend some time thinking this through before you make up your mind. You can be fired for any reason except for discrimination of race, age, gender or disability under some very narrow circumstances. Being disabled doesn't protect your job. You can be fired if you can no longer perform your job satisfactorily. Even the nicest boss in the world has an obligation to keep the business running. You may not want to "come out" at work until you are ready to ask for accommodation, as outlined in the ADA (see above).
In general, the decision of whether to inform your employer is dependent on individual factors to such an extent that one-size-fits-all advice is not possible. Many Parkinson's patients find that they receive far more support than they thought they would, but that depends on their reputation before Parkinson's disease, the quality of the company they work for, and their ability to make meaningful contributions despite the disease. We believe it is best to make your decision based on these highly individual circumstances. Where conflict with your employer is unavoidable, however, you should consult with an attorney who practices in this area.
One other note about Parkinson's disease in the workplace: If you have a personal preference not to tell your employer or co-workers about your Parkinson's disease, and your symptoms are not apparent, then you may well be able to keep it to yourself. However, it has been our experience that most Parkinson's patients are surprised to find that their co-workers have guessed their condition long before they thought their symptoms were noticeable. They may not have surmised that you have Parkinson's disease, but they've noticed something is not right. The symptoms of Parkinson's disease can appear as drunkenness, for example. You may consider telling only your close co-workers, but when considering who to tell and who not to tell, remember, if you have told anyone at work, you may find that you have told everyone at work.
What happens financially if I can no longer work?
That depends on your situation when you stop working. If you are already of retirement age, and are fully vested in your pension, you probably will retire much as if you would if you did not have Parkinson's disease. Some pension plans include medical benefits that may even cover prescription medications. In some cases, you may be eligible for early retirement, which generally reduces the amount of your benefits by a percentage that depends on how many years away from full retirement you are when you stop working.
You may also have a 401(k) or other retirement savings plan that you've been contributing to while working. Under certain circumstances, a disabled person may draw down the assets in such funds before age 59 1/2, but there may be penalties or taxation consequences that make this undesirable.
Sharing your Parkinson's diagnosis at work
Find practical advice in our two-part guide to help decide when to share your Parkinson's diagnosis at work, how to continue the conversation and manage professional relationships over time.