FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - I am disabled. I'm not telling you this to elicit sympathy or special treatment. Truthfully, I would prefer no one knew. However, there are a few things I want to say about disabilities, and I want you to know from the very start I speak from experience.

For the most part, my disabilities are not obvious to the casual observer.

It's a relatively new thing for me, something that crept up on me. A combination of health problems began to affect my mobility. Both asthma and spinal arthritis make it difficult for me to climb stairs and the arthritis means walking or even standing for as little as five minutes leaves me in pain. After sucking it up for several years, I decided it wasn't necessary to live with pain simply because of pride.

So I requested a disability license plate, after much thought and arguing with myself. You see, I didn't want to admit I have disabilities. To me, the term "disabled" meant someone who needs a wheelchair, a cane or a service dog. It didn't mean me.

Although it was difficult to face the fact I'm not a hale and healthy 25-year-old any more, I managed to admit it, and began to research things that might make my life easier.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1999 guarantee certain things to people like me. Under the law, a disability is defined as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity," and these two laws make it illegal for employers to discriminate against people with those impairments. Whether or not a particular condition is considered a disability is determined on a case by case basis.

In accordance with current EEOC guidelines, employers may not discriminate against qualified applicants, or in managing qualified employees, based on disabilities, said Rey Torres, Equal Employment Opportunity manager. A qualified applicant or employee has the skills and education to do the job, and can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

"Reasonable accommodation means adapting the job site or job functions for a qualified person with a disability to enable that person to perform his duties," Torres said. "It does not mean lowering the work standards or changing the job requirements."

Reasonable accommodation may include making facilities accessible; acquiring or modifying equipment; providing assistive devices such as a trackball instead of a mouse; flexible leave schedule; part-time or modified work schedule or redesign of work space or assigning the employee different tasks.

I've seen the reasonable accommodation work for me. After shoulder surgery several years ago. I returned to work after four weeks off, my right arm held snugly against my body by an immobilizer. As the shoulder healed, I slowly moved back to normal tasks. But I couldn't type easily and any movement of my arm resulted in pain. A special program through EEO provided me a track ball, ergonomic keyboard and a copy of "Dragon Naturally Speaking." It cost my office nothing. The new additions to my computer did not set me apart from others, but rather they allowed me to do my job well, despite my injury. The trackball replaces a mouse and allows me to use my computer with less stress on the arm and shoulder than a mouse. An added extra is the fact that the trackball reduces the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, as stress on the wrist is also reduced. I no longer use the software, a voice-recognition program that types words spoken by the user, eliminating the need to type.

The employee may be required to provide medical documentation of the condition before the reasonable accommodation is provided, Torres said.

He added there is a difference between a civilian employee with disabilities and a disabled veteran. The criteria set forth by the ADA is not the same as the Veterans' Administration's criteria.

Things have changed drastically in the past 25 years. I've seen changes in the way we see and describe people with disabilities and huge changes in the way we now welcome them and their expertise to our workplaces.

Once, not so long ago, people with disabilities were expected to collect disability compensation and not work. They were a segment of society that wasn't really recognized. They were the target of sidelong glances and, in some cases, pity.
Now, though, they are valued employees throughout all levels of commercial and government enterprises.

Like me, many people with "hidden" disabilities don't want to admit they may need some help. However, with understanding leaders and a willingness to adapt to their limitations, they can remain productive on the job and continue to be tremendous assets to the Army.

For more information, contact Torres at 353-6917 or Eileen Wallace at 353-9156.

Page last updated Fri October 29th, 2010 at 14:52