Rights in the Workplace for PWD

April 2, 2024

In general, people with diabetes feel like diabetes should not stop them from living an everyday life (whatever that is). Since diabetes is ever-changing, it keeps you on your toes, which means that you may need accommodations to care for yourself appropriately and work or study as you desire.

Definition of a Disability

The legal definition of disability, according to the U.S. federal government is “an individual is considered to have a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Major life activities include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, and working.” This doesn’t mean that it interferes with all of life’s activities, but that it can affect what you’re trying to do.

Acknowledging that diabetes is considered a disability can be a tricky thing emotionally for some PWD. I know when I first heard about contacting the university I was attending to let them know that I have a disability, I had a hard time doing it. I didn’t want to be labeled as a person with a disability, and I didn’t feel “disabled,” which is how it was labeled at the time. But the truth is, I do live with a disability, even if others cannot see it, and it doesn’t always get in the way of my life.

When you inform your school or workplace that you live with diabetes, you are entitled to begin the process of seeking reasonable accommodations under the ADA.This protection ensures you can access reasonable accommodations to care for your diabetes and continue to study or work as planned. Things like eating fast-acting carbohydrates when you’re low, taking bathroom breaks as needed, and breaking for meals.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 to guarantee equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in state and local government services, public accommodations, employment, transportation, and telecommunication. The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone because of a disability. This law was expanded in 2008 through the ADA Amendments Act to be more inclusive of different conditions. It helped make it easier for people seeking protection under the ADA to do so.

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations — to enable applicants and employees with disabilities to enjoy equal employment opportunities unless doing so would be an undue hardship (that is, a significant difficulty or expense). Some examples of reasonable accommodations related to diabetes in the workplace include:

  • Private area for BG checks or insulin administration
  • A place to rest during high or low BG recovery
  • Sufficient breaks to eat or drink, take insulin, and check glucose level
  • Leave for treatment, recovery, or training on managing diabetes
  • Modified work schedule or shift change
  • Allowing the use of a stool if the person has neuropathy that makes it difficult to stand

If a requested accommodation is too complicated or expensive, an employer may provide an easier or less costly accommodation if it effectively meets the employee’s needs. Suppose more than one accommodation will be adequate. In that case, the employee’s preference should be given primary consideration, although the employer is not required to provide the employee’s first choice of reasonable accommodation.

During the Hiring Process

Some laws and nuances exist about what is permitted before someone is hired at a company. Employers cannot ask applicants about medical conditions before making a job offer, but they can ask about job qualifications related to medical conditions. For example, if there are barriers to rotating shifts, they can carry a commercial driver’s license. They can ask more questions if diabetes is disclosed, and they believe you will need accommodations.

Regarding PWD, you are only legally required to disclose something if you need accommodations for the interview process. You get to decide if and when to disclose. Suppose you choose to disclose after receiving a job offer. In that case, the employer is not legally allowed to withdraw that offer due to diabetes unless there is a concern for the ability to perform job functions with reasonable accommodations. After you are hired, they can request additional job safety information and even ask for a medical exam or documents from your medical team. It is always recommended that diabetes information be shared with coworkers for safety.

Job Performance and Diabetes

Most often, diabetes and other disabilities are not the cause of performance issues in the workplace. Employers may ask questions or require PWD to see an HCP if they reasonably believe the performance problems are related to their diabetes. They may ask for health records or information on whether the employee has symptoms visible in the office or if they received information from a source stating the person may have a disability or health issue causing these symptoms or performance issues.

Suppose an employer is concerned that someone cannot perform their job and may be a threat to themselves or others. In that case, they may place an employee on mandatory leave and require documentation or medical treatment before returning to work. An employer may also ask an employee about diabetes to support reasonable accommodations and verify the employee’s use of sick leave related to their diabetes. Employers are not legally permitted to share health or disability information about an employee to other employees.

For more information on the ADA and protections for PWD, here are some resources:

  1. Job Accommodation Network
  2. The Americans with Disabilities Act
  3. S. Department of Labor: ADA

Written and clinically reviewed by Marissa Town, RN, BSN, CDCES