gabby.jpgU.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returned to work yesterday, casting a vote in Congress and inspiring the nation with her recovery after being shot in the head in January.

But she returns a very different person both mentally and physically. gabby-1.jpgAccording to a story in the Arizona Daily Star yesterday,

she can’t use her right arm, so she must write with her left. Her right leg has little feeling in it. Her hair is just growing back in from her last brain surgery in May, and she’s still working on her conversation skills.

The bullet traveled clear through the left side of her head, and in surgery to remove the fragments, some of the congresswoman’s brain had to be removed, too.

Giffords has received the best medical care, and her employer, the U.S. government and the people of Arizona, have been nothing but supportive. Unfortunately, for most employees being able to continue working despite a serious chronic illness is rife with obstacles, including an increase in discrimination.

There are few solid numbers on how many of workers are staying on the job even though they suffer an ongoing illness, including arthritis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, asthma, cardiac and cardio-vascular diseases, and even cancer. But experts believe the numbers of individuals with such diseases in the workplace is increasing.

The aging population and the rise in the nation’s obesity rate are contributing to the growth in the numbers of individuals with chronic illnesses. But what are also driving the increase, experts say, are therapeutic advancements such as drugs and rehabilitation programs for a host of chronic diseases.

As much as three-quarters of the population with a chronic illness can be helped through disease management and continue to work, says Chris Wilhide, the director of program development and research for Nationwide Better Health, a division of insurance giant Nationwide that provides disease management programs to employers.

As a result, employees today are living and working with a host of chronic diseases that may have once meant a quick trip to the unemployment line.

joffe.jpg“All these factors are allowing people to live more productive lives,” says Rosalind Joffe, a career coach who focuses on people with chronic illness, and the author of the forthcoming book “Keep Working, Girlfriend! Women, work and chronic illness.”

Joffe’s overriding message: “Figure out a way to keep working.”

While advances have made it easier for workers to keep working, it’s not a simple task to go from realizing you have a chronic condition to being able to continue your career ambitions.

Joffe, who has multiple sclerosis, had to make adjustments in her career. She was a video producer but found she often had trouble walking and suffered from intense fatigue. She ended up going to the accounting side of the business, and then went on to teach. Eventually she started her own consulting firm so she could work from home. “You have to figure out how to work in an environment that’s accepting and conducive to what you’re dealing with. That should be your first priority.”

There are a host of issues to consider, including everything from how to tell your boss to how to deal with those days, or weeks, you might not be up to snuff because of your illness.

As far as telling your boss, Joffe recommends only bringing it up if your condition is getting in the way of your work, and even then keeping your personal trials and tribulations to a minimum.

“If it’s changing the way you work it’s foolish not to talk about it, otherwise people will make assumptions about you that are much worse than if you told them you have a chronic illness,” she notes.

Let your boss know you can handle the job, but that you might need time to take medication or go to doctors’ appointments. And bring some coworkers into the fold because they may be able to help out on projects if you miss work. You can then offer to reciprocate.

Ask your employer if they could make reasonable accommodations to your workspace or the way you do your job, but make it more of a give and take. Don’t make demands.

If your boss is unreasonable, you may have the law on your side depending on your condition. The Americans with Disabilities Act covers individuals whose illnesses have made them disabled in certain life functions, either permanently or intermittently, explains Chris Kuczynski of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Unfortunately, charges of disability bias with the EEOC have been rising steadily for that last six years, climbing over 25,000 complaints filed for the first time last year.

If you feel you are a victim of discrimination, you can find out how to file a claim at the agency’s Web site. But it’s always a good idea to speak with your manager first, or your HR department. Resolving issues together in a civil fashion is the best first option, especially if you don’t want to exacerbate your illness.

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