Is Disability Right for You?

Monday, May 2, 2005

By: Jeanne Lazo and Carol J. Amato

Reprinted from FMOnline


When fibromyalgia struck, Elaine struggled to keep up with her home life and her job as an outside sales rep. Fatigue increased over time, causing her energy level to plummet. One day, Elaine had to tell her boss that she could no longer travel as her job required. She turned to her company’s Human Resource Manager, who sent her out on sick leave. After that, her employer shifted her to long-term disability.

“I didn’t realize going out on disability was a choice,” Elaine said. “I wish I had been told my options. Disability benefits were far less than I imagined, and now I faced an even bigger problem: How to find my way back into the workforce.  It seems unlikely that I will get hired in another field due to my lack of experience and physical limitations.”

If you are working with fibromyalgia, perhaps you, too, have considered going out on disability leave. If this decision seems difficult to you, it undoubtedly is—and for good reason. Chucking a hard-earned career, one that may have taken years or training, education, and dedication, isn’t an easy decision.

Disability leave is a choice, however—your choice. Ask your Human Resource representative for the facts and then you decide. But how will you know if disability is right for you? Here are some suggestions.

Start with your opinion of your health. How do you feel physically and mentally? What things make your condition worse? Do medications or treatments help?Would adjustments or adaptive devices enable you to do more? Do you need frequent rest periods or do you need to change position frequently? If possible, estimate the number of hours a day, as well as the number of days each week, on average, when you are able to work.

Analyze your capabilities and limitations. Symptoms may blur together in a fog of pain, suffering, and worry, making it hard to get a grip on your situation. This is normal. Track good days and bad days in a symptom and pain diary, noting what hurts each day and how badly it hurts on a scale of 1-10. What activities are now difficult or impossible for you do? By taking an inventory of which body parts work well, you can think about types of work you could do with those parts.

Get one or more expert medical opinions of your condition. Have you obtained a second opinion or the opinion of a medical specialist? Do you have a firm diagnosis and prognosis for the future? Is this information well-documented in your medical files and supported by sufficient, objective medical testing or laboratory reports?

Schedule a consultation appointment with your primary doctor or specialist. During that visit, review your job description with him/her. Which work-related and daily living tasks do you find difficult or impossible to do? Does your doctor think your condition meets the definition of disability used by your prospective disability benefit provider(s)? Can your doctor(s) determine if or when you may recover to the point of being able to do your job—or any job—in the future?

Research your financial safety net. Investigate disability benefits (after taxes) through an employer’s disability plan, Social Security, Workers’ Compensation (for work-related injuries or illnesses), or through a private disability insurance policy you purchased on your own (typically through an insurance agent). You may be eligible for benefits under more than one plan. Look up the definition of disability used by each one and analyze whether or not you believe you meet these definitions of disability. Next, calculate the monthly income you could receive from each potential source. Check if there is a waiting period that must be met before benefits will be paid. Find out how long the approval processes take on average. Do you have enough savings to live on while you wait? Will disability benefits pay you enough to survive, or would keeping your job be the better course of action?

Consult with an attorney who specializes in disability cases.Take the information you uncovered about prospective disability benefit providers, copies of disability policies and/or other benefit documents, and all of your medical records with you. Does the attorney think you have a strong disability claim?

Explore other jobs. For some individuals, working in another job without going out on long-term disability may be the best option. Talk to your employer about other jobs you could do within the company. Meet with a community college or university vocational counselor or a professional career counselor about new career opportunities.

Consider the emotional aspects of disability. Work provides more than an income; it provides a social network and the satisfaction that comes from doing something challenging or helping others. How important is working to you? Would you be happier trying to work within your new limitations rather than staying at home? Would you feel isolated, lonely, and depressed at home? If so, perhaps working in some capacity would be better than not working at all.

Think twice before accepting reduced hours and lesser pay. Although a less taxing job may be the perfect solution for you, consider the possible consequences. If you find you cannot do that job and you later go out on long-term disability, your benefits may be based on the lower-paying job. Also, if you cannot do the less-taxing job, you could be fired.

Evaluate your job performance.If you attempt to continue working at your present job and your performance slips below the acceptable level, you risk being fired. If so, your employer-sponsored disability insurance, if you have any, will be terminated, too. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect employees in this situation; it protects only employees who were disabled when hired.

Assess the needs of your family and loved ones. Should you conserve your limited energy to fulfill your role as a mom, dad, wife, husband, etc.? If it comes down to a choice between your job and your family, weigh your priorities.

Looking back, Elaine said, “If I had known I had a choice, I would have asked for an inside sales position. I might have been able to continue working, and that would have been a better choice for me and my family.” Armed with the facts, you’ll be in a stronger position to decide if disability is right for you.

Freelance writers Jeanne Lazo, MBA, and Carol J. Amato, MA, are the authors of Persistence is Power! A Real-World Guide for the Newly Disabled Employee (http://www.disabilitybook.com/).