Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Multiple Sclerosis in the workplace

NBC’s mockumentary “The Office” entertains TV audiences with the everyday lives of office employees at a fictional paper company. Patti worked for over 10 years with Stanford Paper Company before Multiple Sclerosis progression detoured her onto long term disability never to return to the work force.

Oddly while I have tried a couple times to interest Patti in “The Office”, the program has never held her attention or caused her to laugh.

Multiple Sclerosis in the workplace first affected Patti with intermittent numbness in her fingers. After a barrage of neurological tests, “probable MS” became the diagnosis of last resort back in the mid 80’s.

Patti worked as a buyer and her daily activities included constant phone calls and both typewriters and early PC’s in the dawn of the computerized business age.

I realize most ‘blog’ readers have no frame of reference for the word typewriter. Below is what one looked like.

Fingers were critical. Numb fingers not only increased mistakes and reduced productivity, but an extra or missing zero on an order was a ‘costly’ mistake.

As intermittent slurred speech entered the MS equation, co workers would assume Patti had been drinking. I remember how this innuendo hurt her more than alarm from these intermittent symptoms.

Numb fingers and slurred speech ARE intermittent symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis but not conventional “disabilities”. Even the most enlightened employers would be challenged to adapt.

Patti experienced her first hospitalized MS exacerbation on Thanksgiving Morning 1989. For another two years she would try to return to working between more hospitalized exacerbations.

For perspective the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H. W. Bush remarking, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down."

A year later, Patti was “encouraged” to take a long term disability plan from Stanford Paper’s parent company Hammermill Paper, acquired by International Paper, the largest paper company in the world. In retrospect a fair offer as Patti still has health and prescription plan benefits.

Disability employment awareness is about infinitely more than a ramp. For centuries it was simply know as the Golden Rule, “do to others what you would have them do to you.”

Caregivingly Yours, J Patrick Leer

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