Approaching Workplace Accommodations - Part Two: When Good Accommodations Go Bad

It’s important to stay vigilant when assessing an accommodations request. Are the accommodations providing support and opportunities for success? Is the employer honoring the requests while maintaining confidentiality? Accommodations require follow up communication. The process is dynamic, and adjustments are often required.

After I made the request and an agreement was made, there was a sense of relief. It didn’t always last. Relief transformed to disbelief as I witnessed my rights being stepped on. Reasonable accommodations are not a privilege; they are a right. They are also enforced and managed by people, and people are fallible.

Invisible illness and stereotypes

Living with an invisible illness is complicated for me and my employer. I am the World’s Strongest Person having narcolepsy with cataplexy; I am physically strong and fit. I’m proud of that moniker, but it has worked against me at times.

On the surface, there is little indication of the turmoil and difficulties I am experiencing. Clear skies and sunshine on the outside, but a Cat-5 Hurricane of sleepiness is surging on the inside.

Nap accommodation issues

My narcolepsy nemesis can cause a sleep attack with little notice. Performing adequately one moment while slurring my speech and buckling my knees minutes later.

Sleep attacks are unpredictable

The first time I requested accommodations, I was asked to provide 30-minute notice for a nap. I was also asked to avoid taking a nap during busy times. It undermined the entire nap accommodation. Sleep attacks are most often not predictable.

Nap locations

My first employer also refused to allow me to use any room in the 90,000 square foot facility for naps. Were there locations and rooms I could use? Yes. Was I given permission to use them? No. I was told to nap in my car. The second and third employers also made the decision that naps were to be taken in my car; however, there were space issues to consider. I wasn’t interested in pushing back and creating waves.

Pushback and response to my accommodations request

There was tremendous pushback the first time I applied for accommodations. Trust in others and naivety was a regrettable decision. Another mistake was informing my supervisor of my intent to request accommodations.

Additionally, I sought out the regional HR director for guidance on the process too. I kept them both verbally abreast of my progress and timeline for submitting my request. In the end, I trusted them; I had no reason not to.

The day I turned in my accommodations, I was told I would no longer need a workstation or office. I was told to supervise my department of 12 employees from multi-purpose computers. The workstation I had used was replaced with a laminator. Hurt was an understatement.

I had told my immediate supervisor about my turning in my accommodations. He went on to deny any knowledge of my requests. Lesson learned: always document conversation with a digital footprint. I also learned that I needed to BCC any correspondence to my personal email address.

Accommodations approval

While waiting to hear back about accommodations approval, I was called into the Group VP's office. I can still feel the heat rising from my collar as she stated I should not, “Use accommodations as a crutch.” The conversation was documented as “employee counseling” without mentioning her direct comment. Included in the language, “Further violations will result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination,” in bold. Message was clear; the accommodation request was a fight.

My accommodations were granted, but it was a hard-fought battle. Moving forward, every correspondence about my accommodations was meticulously documented and always involved email. There were so many examples of the hostility spoken and unspoken. I debated back and forth whether to file an EEOC grievance. Worried that it would exacerbate the discomfort, I delayed filing a grievance. The decision not to file a grievance did not make my problems disappear.

Loss of employment

Eleven months later, I found a friend and co-worker deceased in his home. The emotional impact of the trauma wrecked me emotionally. My performance dropped precipitously. The employer covered EMDR therapy for the trauma but neglected to follow up with FMLA paperwork. Within 2 months, I was terminated. Litigation followed - a story for another day - wrought with its own challenges and life lessons.

Future accommodations requests

Even after the treatment I received from my first employer, I still went on to request accommodations in the future. The experience could have caused me to lose hope in the process. Instead, it galvanized my resolve.

I made mistakes along the way. The belief that nonprofit employers had my best interest at heart was one of those mistakes. Not requesting help and filing a grievance was another mistake.

Making the healthiest choice for ourselves

Ultimately, I decide if pressing my body to its limits to work full-time is worth the health consequences. I incorrectly believed that pushing myself past healthy boundaries was the only way to survive.

Living with narcolepsy means searching for the best individual fit. Symptoms vary, and symptom severity varies from person to person. Never hesitate to reach out for perspective on how to move forward. Failing to ask for help perpetuated my problems and frustrated my situation. Hubris is a character defect that can have long-lasting consequences. The World’s Strongest Person having narcolepsy with cataplexy approved this message.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Check out Part 1, Approaching Workplace Accommodations.

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