A doctor, employee, and employer sending paper airplanes to each other

Approaching Workplace Accommodations – Part One 

How to approach my employer was one of the hardest decisions I faced after my diagnosis. Accommodations are required to meet the demands of my job descriptions. This is an individualized decision based on the type of work performed and symptom manifestation and severity.

The decision to pursue a reasonable accommodations request varies between individuals, between occupations, and between “seasons” of our journey. For example, during my divorce, my symptoms were more pronounced and debilitating. The type of accommodations and my employer's willingness to accommodate also varied among employers.

Different procedures for different employers

I have applied for accommodations with 3 different types of employers: a nonprofit organization, a Fortune 500 company, and a county government. There was a different procedure for each employer's accommodation application. A confirmed diagnosis and recommended accommodations from my medical doctor were constants for each process.

The timing for requests varied greatly between employers. It took nearly 3 years post-diagnosis for me to pursue accommodations for the first time. The second employer included a box on the application requesting reasonable accommodations. I chose to request immediately there. My third time with the process was 6 months after employment began.

Submiting my accommodations requests

It was up to me to submit my recommendations to my physician for each employer. Accommodations are covered by Title I of the Americans With Disabilities Act.1 The reasonable accommodations allow me to meet the demands of my job description.

Reasonable requests were sent in the form of a note on doctors' letterhead to the appropriate contact at my employer. It is critical to note that all requests are reasonable. Employers can and will deny requests that provide an “undue burden” on the organization. I chose to navigate this issue by making requests that did not place a financial strain on the employer.

Lack of standardization

The lack of standardization when making a reasonable request for accommodations is one limitation of the process. Companies rely on their own internal legal counsel and policies to determine what they can reasonably accommodate.

This impacts what they can and cannot approve. It has been my experience that larger employers tend to have staff who had experience working with other people with narcolepsy.

Invisible illness, invisible disability

I was never more aware that I lived with an “invisible illness” or “invisible disability” than during the accommodations process. Narcolepsy cannot be seen. Cataplexy can be observable but partial cataplexy many times is not. Living with type 1 narcolepsy has shaped my approach with employers.

Legally speaking, this should make no difference as all disabilities are equally protected under the ADA. Unfortunately, the rule of law is not always followed, and the process can reveal underlying prejudices.

Making a pros and cons list

It is important to consider all factors when deciding to apply. I don’t want to sugar coat reality: going public with your request for accommodations can open you to subtle or blatant retaliation. Most companies have a very limited list of individuals who are aware of the accommodations.

The more extensive that list, the more likely that prejudices and stereotypes will reveal themselves. I have approached 2 regional HR representatives and a regional manager for approval. Each time I made a detailed pros and cons list before pursuing accommodations and before submitting my request.

Napping and shift timing

At each place of employment, the key to my accommodations was the ability to clock-out for unpaid naps ranging from 15 to 30 minutes. My first 2 requests included either two 15-minute naps or one 30-minute nap to address sleep attacks.

One employer required that I make up that time at the end of my shift, where the other deducted that from my total hours. I have found that shorter shifts limit, but do not exclude, my need for naps. 15-minute naps are not sufficient.

Currently, my position includes shifts that do not exceed 6 hours and the employer allows me to clock out for a 30-minute nap, as needed.

Employer caveats and nap locations

Every single employer has made requests that I make every reasonable effort to notify my employer as early as possible for my nap or to schedule naps. I have used these moments as opportunities to educate the individual making the requests that my onset of sleepiness is rarely predictable or schedulable.

Every employer asked that I excuse myself to my car for naps. It’s very marginalizing when asked to sleep in my car. It is also a safety hazard and has led to some humiliating exchanges with building security and guests.

Flex-time as an accommodation

Another accommodation that was beneficial was flex-time or as I thought of them: “mulligan days.” At my first employer, I could use paid time off to arrive late to work due to difficulties transitioning to wakefulness.

I could use this accommodation 2 times a month. This was granted through intermittent FMLA protections. These protections kick in after working for a company for more than a year and for more than 1,250 accumulated hours.2

Know your rights

The process of applying for accommodations is a decision each person must make based on their current employer or symptom situation. Employment lawyers provide excellent recommendations and suggestions but may not always be affordable to your financial situation. Know your rights under the American With Disabilities Act and the Families and Medical Leave Act.1,2

Title I of the ADA protects both employees and job seekers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is involved with enforcement of Title I. Both the ADA and FMLA are coordinated by the Department of Labor. The World’s Strongest Person having narcolepsy with cataplexy approved this message.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Check out Part 2, When Good Accommodations Go Bad.

Has your employer been accommodating of workplace accommodations? Any tips of how you explained your narcolepsy to your employer? Share with the community in the comments below.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Narcolepsy.Sleep-Disorders.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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