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Resources Help Employers, Individuals with Multiple Sclerosis

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR  4/14/2008
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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable disease. Because each person’s symptoms vary, employers should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to accommodations.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) says MS is often diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 to 50, impacting existing employees during their prime working years.

Symptoms can include vision problems, tingling or numbness, trouble maintaining balance, fatigue or weakness, loss of coordination, problems with walking, and lapses in memory. Symptoms might be permanent, or might come and go without warning.

That’s why everyday tasks such as seeing a blinking cursor on a computer screen, manipulating a mouse, or remembering when to take medication may prove difficult for some individuals with MS.

Technology Provides a Solution for Some

The MS Technology Collaborative, an alliance of a pharmaceutical company, Berlex Inc., Microsoft Corp. and the NMSS was formed to help people with MS gain access to useful technology and resources.

"Having MS means something different to each person with the disease," said Joyce Nelson, president and CEO, NMSS, in a press release. "We want to help people with MS connect and move forward in the world in ways that support their individual needs--not the other way around."

One of the group’s first projects was to conduct a survey on how technology affects people living with MS. According to the results, 55 percent of those who had used some form of accessible technology felt the technology made it possible for them to continue working.

When asked if they actually use assistive technology that could make everyday tasks easier, few respondents indicated they were taking advantage of such tools. For example:

  • Thirty-three percent of respondents said they had trouble typing on a standard computer keyboard, but only 5 percent said they had made related adaptations, such as using an alternative keyboard or a voice recognition program.
  • Thirty percent said they had trouble reading text on a standard screen, but only 6 percent had made adjustments to the computer settings, such as increasing font size or using screen magnifiers.

“When I was first diagnosed with MS, one of my biggest fears was not knowing how MS would affect me or how to prepare for the challenges of such an unpredictable disease,” said Keith, a business transformation analyst in Norwalk, Conn., as part of the survey announcement. “Now that I’ve been living with MS for 14 years, I’ve learned that there are a lot of adaptive technologies--like voice recognition software and screen magnifiers--that help me pursue the same goals I had before my diagnosis.”

The collaborative hopes to lead more individuals and employers to technology options best suited to those with MS such as altering computer screen settings, using a trackball instead of a mouse and sending text message reminders.

Career-Related Gateway to Information

Additional guidance is available on MS Workplace, a free source of career advice, workplace tips and job postings targeted toward the MS community. The site was developed through an alliance between career website Monster, the National MS Society and Biogen Idec and Elan, firms engaged in MS research and development.

Users can access content on the site to help them better understand how to “manage” their MS while continuing their career. Site features will include:

  • Content for helping people with MS prioritize their workplace goals.
  • Tips for talking with supervisors and colleagues about MS.
  • Answers to frequently asked employment-related questions regarding MS.
  • Information for those with MS looking to re-enter the workforce.

Users will be able to post their resumes, access job postings and review specially selected job listings culled from Monster’s national database that might accommodate the specified needs of people living with MS.

The site will also offer a section for employers who might have an employee with MS to help them better understand the disease.

Accommodation Needs Change

Gyselle Saner of Miami has been with the same company for 12 years. “Shortly after joining the company, I was diagnosed with MS and I experienced numerous relapses that took a considerable toll on me. Things began to turn around when I started a new treatment and was able to expand my role at the office,” Saner said in a press release. “But there have been times when I have had to ask myself whether I can continue to work and what I really want from a job because so much of my energy goes towards managing my MS.”

“Because MS typically interrupts people’s lives just as their careers are beginning to take off and families are getting started, people with MS tend to be especially committed to overcoming disease-related limitations in the workplace,” said Steven Nissen, director of employment programs, National MS Society, in a press release. “No two people experience MS in quite the same way, which is why it is important to have thorough information that covers a wide range of topics related to employment issues.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to respond expeditiously to employee requests for accommodation and to engage in an interactive dialogue with the employee about accommodation strategies. Employers must be able to find the information they need quickly and easily.

Employers can find a list of ideas for accommodating employees with MS on the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website. Employers and individuals can obtain free accommodation guidance by contacting JAN directly.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is manager of SHRM’s Diversity Focus Area.

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