Many of you might remember my cousin, Anna, who wrote her first article for YoPro last year. Her latest article for us is one of bravery, vulnerability, and honesty, and I'm proud to call her my cousin.
In October 2019, I left work to pick up a quick lunch a few miles away. During my drive back to the office, I had my first documented tonic-clonic seizure, unknowingly drove through four lanes into traffic and headfirst into a tree. One week later I was back at work, as a totally different employee, navigating a completely different workplace.
My life was permanently changed, but back at work it was business as usual. I needed to be the high-functioning employee they hired, though I was physically and mentally operating at about 50%. Even after I ditched the walker and leg boot, I had brand new medications and lifestyle changes that were necessary to manage epilepsy. The majority of medications used to treat epilepsy purposefully slow down the function of the brain, often causing memory loss and fatigue. So while I was on the path to living seizure-free, my brain was slowing by the day.
I don’t think any young professional ever expects to become disabled or be diagnosed with a chronic illness. Many of us enter the workplace naive to the rollercoaster ride of the next 40 years of employment. In reality, however, 61 million adults living in the U.S. are disabled.
Looking back now, there is so much I wish I knew when I was first diagnosed with epilepsy. Though my family and friends were unbelievably supportive, there is a deep loneliness that comes with managing a disability or chronic illness. So, here are a few tips for those navigating the workforce with a disability:
Utilize your HR department.
Meet with HR and discuss all of your options, including paid leave and workplace accommodations.
If you are a U.S. citizen, exercise your civil rights included in the Americans with Disabilities Act. You are not a burden to your employer, the burden is on your employer to comply with the law.
Don’t fall prey to toxic positivity.
Upon your diagnosis, those around you might be quick to tell you how you’re “just like everyone else!” and “such a survivor!” While these comments are well-meaning, they dismiss the truth: your life is different and likely more difficult now.
For me, my health and safety come before everything else - including my job. I can’t regularly stay up until midnight to finish a work project, because my seizures are triggered by lack of sleep. I can only remain seizure-free if I take care of myself. And if I remain seizure-free, I’ll be a better employee.
Remember your value.
Every employee brings a unique perspective to the workplace and you are no exception. Do not play small - when it comes to speaking up in meetings, negotiating your salary, or enforcing your workplace boundaries.
I wish I could go back in time and take back the mean things I told myself: you’re slowing down this project, you’re failing this assignment, you should be better by now.
If I could, I’d tell myself what I’ll tell you now: You are trying your best. Tomorrow is another day.
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