When I Call Myself Disabled

By Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist

Recently an interesting hashtag started trending on Twitter: #WhenICallMyselfDisabled.

Cassie, a friend who also has chronic pain, sent me a message to make sure that I had seen it. I am so glad she did because it sparked something in me that I didn’t even know I had an opinion about.

There are so many people in the chronic pain community and we all have different disabilities, diseases, genetics, treatments, healthcare, etc. Even people with the same diseases and conditions can have different levels of disability.

There are many legal and governmental definitions of disability. For example, to qualify for Social Security disability, a person must have a physical or mental impairment that has lasted or is expected to last at least 12 months and which prevents them from doing a "substantial” amount of work.  

bigstock-Silhouette-of-man-on-a-wheelch-17395244.jpg

The American with Disabilities Act broadly defines disability as a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more major life activity.

Often healthy people have a tough time understanding what we live with or the challenges we face on a daily basis. That’s where #WhenICallMyselfDisabled comes in. It can help us explain our own personal definitions of disability and how being disabled impacts our lives.  

The first time I pulled up the hashtag on Twittter, I didn’t plan on sharing it. I was just reading through various tweets when my personal lightbulb went off. When did I start considering myself disabled? How do I define it?

Here’s how I responded on Twitter:

Here's how some people responded to my Tweet:

 It's a life of pure hell isn't it? This is called living???😟😟😥

Oh, I can so relate hun. 💟

Me three. I’m tired & in constant pain. Don’t make me wait in lines, stand at counters, walk stairs, etc. It’s not cuz I’m lazy I gd walked 4,000 miles once! But of course, everyone assumes it’s cuz I’m unmotivated & they hope that pushing my limits is tough love lesson I need.  

I later went to Facebook and shared a longer version of my Twitter message:

#WhenICallMyselfDisabled it’s because I do not know when I will be able to physically attend an event or have to leave early due to lights, noise, fatigue, having a seizure, a pain flare that no 1 can see but levels me, migraine, having an asthma attack from walking or smoke... I could go on, when was the last time I slept, when is the last time I vomited from the pain, is my hand working or is the dystonia attacking today. I could go on and on!

I call myself disabled because I can’t sing, dance and cheer the way I used to. I could go on and on... Despite being disabled, I do my best to be my best and be the best me I can be. Being disabled just means it takes me longer, I have to find another way to accomplish things in life, I still have value and worth.

I didn’t know if my Facebook message would resonate or not.  I just had a feeling how powerful this hashtag could be in helping others understand we may look normal and fully functioning, but don’t take our looks for granted. Here are a few tweets I saw after my post on Facebook.

#WhenICallMyselfDisabled I am acknowledging that my body is different but normal.

#WhenICallMyselfDisabled I feel like I finally really understand my body and mind and can accept them as they are. I have so much more confidence moving through the world, and acceptance (from myself) that the accommodations I need aren't laziness or selfishness.  

My Facebook message received more than 80 likes, comments and shares, so I know it resonated with my pain friends and “non-disabled” friends. It was an outpouring of support and helped lift stigmas that society often puts on people who need some extra help, assistance or time.  

Knowing that no matter what disability I have that I still have value and worth makes me feel so much better. I’m glad the hashtag trended. It could have been a pity hashtag, but I found it to be socially educational and meaningful. I am glad so many others joined in before and after me. A message like this can go a long way to change how we are viewed.  

Barby Ingle.jpg

Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain FoundationShe is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.  

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Invisible Illness and Disability

By Mia Maysack, PNN Columnist

A final once over in the mirror. I straighten my navy-blue blazer and fastened the top button on the very first dress shirt I've ever owned, reflecting upon how grueling the process has been.

Pursuing a disability case was an absolute last option for me.  Being a contributing part of the workforce is something I not only enjoyed very much, but it made up part of my identity.

There were moments I was unsure if I'd even make it to this point, but I'm grateful to have an opportunity to exercise the right to represent myself at my disability hearing without a lawyer.

When sharing this viewpoint with others, I've mostly been advised against it but the route of legal assistance proved a dead end for me (see “Taking Control of My Disability Case”). Other recommendations included: Do not smile or dress nice, don't show much personality at all, or mention hobbies like volunteering because it could be considered contradictory to my claims.

Being differently enabled does not make me any less of a person so I refuse to act as such. It’s frustrating to feel as though you've got to convince others of your truth and, as hard as you try, they still may not “get it.”

I'm aware that my illnesses aren't visible to outsiders and because of that they are questioned. I showed up to provide an authentic glimpse as to what invisible illness can look like and how it has impacted my life.

I live in a constant state of post-infection intractable chronic migraine -- head pain that has never gone away since the year 2000. This pain is expected to be life-long and incurable.

There are also daily cluster headache attacks, which are an entirely different beast. The cherry on top comes in the form of my nerves being hyperactive, resulting in a diagnosis of fibromyalgia.

face-1013520_640.jpg

These conditions fluctuate. One day looks different than the next, but even at my absolute best there is still pain. Things can turn for the worse at any moment without warning and constant breaks are required for even simple tasks. I am not able to function optimally in a gainful work place environment, despite my countless attempts at trying.  

Between the nausea/vomiting, light sensitivity/vision disturbances, persistent fatigue, brain fogginess and the on-going discomfort, there hasn't been a single aspect of my life that has not been negatively impacted: relationships, activities of daily living, employment, higher education,  goals, dreams, aspirations....

I prolonged beginning the disability process due to the fact that I'm aware so many have it worse than me. I am thankful for my senses, mobility, the fact I can use the restroom on my own and feed myself, although there are periods daily when I can be entirely incapacitated.

Over the years, 34 prescriptions have been written for me -- all worsening matters as a result of the side effects. About 1,800 injections have been administered.

I now take full responsibility for my own wellness and have completely revamped my lifestyle to accommodate my conditions. I’ve also found a new passion for patient advocacy as a way to find a purpose in all of the agony, leading to the reality that I am my own best expert. It's empowering to be armed with knowledge on behalf of the millions who live with headache and migraine disorders.

While conveying this information at my hearing, I experienced more emotion than anticipated, especially when a friend took the stand to provide testimony as a witness. She reminisced on how we used to go dancing together and described how we could be so carefree. But over the years what seemed to have started as a slight hindrance turned into an everyday occurrence, rippling into less and less quality time spent. This took a toll on us both.  

I can only hope it came across that migraine matters, that it burdens us all, and everyone should care about disabilities because it only takes a slight change in circumstance to alter your life forever. I didn't choose to struggle every day with getting out of bed, to have much of my time flat out stolen, or to have many memories tainted by the relentlessness of my chronic pain.  

While awaiting word back on a decision, I cannot help but wonder. How many more times will they want to see and hear from me? I've already come thus far and I'm not giving up! 

img1539183317715.jpg

Mia Maysack lives with chronic migraine, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia. Mia is the founder of Keepin’ Our Heads Up, a Facebook advocacy and support group, and Peace & Love, a wellness and life coaching practice for the chronically ill.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Civil Rights Case Gives Hope to Pain Patients

By Richard Dobson, MD, Guest Columnist

People with chronic disabling pain frequently complain that doctors discharge them from their practice because of the medications they take. Sometimes doctors refuse to accept patients who are taking opioid pain medications, even though the medications treat a legitimate medical condition.

There may be hope that such actions will be considered violations of the civil rights of patients.

This week the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) signed a formal agreement with Selma Medical Associates, a large primary care practice in Virginia, that may open the door for people with chronic pain to regain their full access to medical care.

Selma Medical refused to schedule a new patient appointment for a man who was taking the addiction treatment drug Suboxone. He filed a civil rights complaint asserting that his rights were violated because has a disability.

According to the complaint, Selma Medical “regularly turns away prospective new patients who are treated with narcotic controlled substances such as Suboxone.”

The DOJ and Selma Medical settled the complaint out-of-court. The full agreement can be read here.

bigstock-Law-4633750.jpg

In essence, Selma Medical agreed to stop discriminating on the basis of disability, including opioid use disorder (OUD). The settlement identifies several specific ways that Selma Medical was violating the civil rights of people with disabilities.

“By refusing to accept the Complainant for a new family practice appointment solely because he takes Suboxone, Selma Medical discriminated against him by denying him the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of Selma Medical.

By turning away the Complainant and other prospective patients who are treated with narcotic controlled substances, including Suboxone, Selma Medical imposed eligibility criteria that screen out or tend to screen out individuals with OUD.

Further, Selma Medical failed to make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities.”

In the agreement, Selma Medical agreed to stop discriminating now and in the future. The staff and administration are also required to undergo intensive training on the implementation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Importantly for pain patients, the agreement applies to people taking “narcotic medications” for any reason and is not limited to people who are taking Suboxone for OUD. The agreement does seem to imply that people taking opioid medications also have their civil rights violated if they are refused medical care on the basis of their diagnosis and their use of opioids.

A former staff attorney in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division agrees.  

“This formal settlement agreement from DOJ affirms that discrimination in access to medical treatment based solely on an individual’s use of a particular medication — in this case, a narcotic controlled substance — may violate the law,” says Kate Nicholson, a pain patient and civil rights attorney who helped draft federal regulations under the ADA.

Anyone who has chronic pain and who is discharged from a practice or refused admission to a medical practice should let the medical staff know that this is a violation of the ADA. Show them the agreement between Selma Medical and the DOJ. Then if the medical practice still refuses care, file a formal complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. Instructions on filing can be found here.

As part of the settlement agreement, Selma Medical had to pay $30,000 to the complainant for “the discrimination and the harm he has endured, including, but not limited to, emotional distress and pain and suffering.” Selma Medical also had to pay a civil penalty of $10,000.

It seems to me that the substance of this agreement gives real hope to the chronic pain community that discrimination based on disability, even if the disability is based on pain, is illegal and violates their civil rights.

RCD (1).jpg

Richard Dobson, MD, worked as a physician in the Rochester, New York area for over 30 years, treating and rehabilitating people suffering from chronic pain, mostly as the result of work or motor vehicle accidents.  He is now retired.  

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Taking Control of My Disability Case

By Mia Maysack, PNN Columnist

This stack of papers may not look like much, but it is my medically documented life beginning in the year 2002.

20180710_120104.jpg

I personally highlighted them, so I can confidently report that the words “headache” and “migraine” are mentioned hundreds of times throughout.

I've been in the process of pursuing Social Security disability for about three years, which is not uncommon. Many have abused the system and there's also a high volume of claims being submitted and reviewed every day.

It took me a long time to even get to the point of filing for disability.

What does filing say about me as a person? Will I be judged? They probably won't even believe it. There are so many out there that need and deserve this more than me.

I still have those thoughts from time-to-time, even though my chronic migraines and cluster headaches have impacted every aspect of my life in a negative way – including employment.

I do not take the collection of denial letters I have received personally, as they've got to do what they can to weed out whoever isn't entirely legitimate. I know that I am, so I'll keep fighting.   

In recent months, another denial letter came. They acknowledged I am unwell but still deem me “well enough.” I decide to appeal immediately, as they only give you 60 days to do so. I also hired legal representation to help me through the process.

When I called them to check on the progress of my case, their tone felt dismissive. I would get put on hold before finishing a sentence or receive roundabout answers to basic questions. I’d also be reminded -- as if I wasn't already aware -- that disability court dates are scheduling 23 months from now.

I don't mind waiting, considering the fact I have no choice.  But it seemed as though I was being slow walked on a hamster wheel and not moving forward at all. This week I chose to contact Social Security directly and they informed me that, according to their records, there is no appeal on file for me at this time.

What does this mean, exactly?  In short, my legal representatives have not been covering their responsibilities to me as their client. I've been scraping by with 26 cents to my name while relying on their word, which I've now been convinced means next to nothing. 

I asked a Social Security representative what my next steps should be to take control and clean up this mess. He instructed me to visit their website and file an online appeal, which has since been done. Since I can’t account for where exactly all the paperwork I've been sending to my "help" has been going, I plan to stop in my local Social Security office to hand my stack of medical records directly to them.

We are our own best advocates, but how do I advocate for myself?  This is one way. I am the one who knows and understands the extent of how this debilitation has derailed just about every goal or dream I've set my sights on. But I won’t let that define me. I am more than my illness and won't allow my case to be dismissed.

I'm aware that representing myself may very well set this process back even further, but I've come to the realization that if we want something done right, we've got to make it happen ourselves.

At first, I felt disheartened because this seems like a full-time job in itself. But when others do not hold up their end, I now see this as an opportunity to raise awareness, address policy, educate and ultimately claim ownership of my own life. Now and in the future.

img1539183317715.jpg

Mia Maysack lives with chronic migraine, cluster headaches and fibromyalgia. Mia is the founder of Keepin’ Our Heads Up, a Facebook advocacy and support group, and Peace & Love, a wellness and life coaching practice for the chronically ill.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Should You Tell an Employer About Your Chronic Pain?

By Lana Barhum, Columnist

Telling your boss or a potential employer about your chronic pain condition can be slippery slope. 

If you disclose it, you may wind up dealing with judgments and misguided attitudes from supervisors and coworkers about the extent of your chronic pain. On the other hand, if you don’t disclose it, you may miss out on accommodations you need and are entitled to.

There is always going to be risk when you disclose. And it is hard to know whether an employer will be accommodating or treat you unfairly.   

You do have rights as an employee and a person living with chronic pain. You should know what they are before you decide whether to disclose.

You Do Not Have to Be Visibly Disabled

Many people who live with chronic pain don’t consider themselves “disabled.”  Even so, they may still qualify for accommodations under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA defines a person with disability as someone who has “a physical or mental impairment” that significantly alters one or more major life activities. You may have trouble sitting, standing or walking, for example. The key is whether the limitation is substantial

It is important to note the ADA’s definition is a legal one, not medical. And because it is a legal definition, the meaning of disability is different than it would be under other laws. The ADA doesn’t list all the covered conditions, which gives some flexibility to people living with  non-specific chronic pain; which is pain that lasts longer than three months, but has no specific medical cause.

bigstock-Doctor-Treating-Female-Patient-102022697.jpg

For example, you could have joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis, while someone else’s back pain may not be related to a specific event or health condition. It doesn’t make the other person’s pain any less valid than yours or diminish their need for job accommodations. Back pain would still be considered an impairment.

You Do Not Have to Disclose When Job Hunting

The ADA does not require you to disclose your medical conditions when interviewing and applying for jobs.  However, the employer is allowed to ask questions about whether there is anything that could prevent you from doing the job required. 

They may inquire about medical conditions and request a medical exam, but only if they are doing this with all their new hires and being in good physical health is a requirement to perform the job.

You Do Not Have Disclose When You Start a New Job

If you didn’t disclose your condition while interviewing or when you started the job, you can still ask for accommodations later.  You have the right to ask when the need arises.

If you request an accommodation, an employer is allowed to ask for a reasonable corroboration of your need for one,  such as a doctor’s letter. You can disclose what you want about your medical condition and it doesn’t have to be everything.

You Can Disclose on Your Own Timetable

You are under no legal obligation to tell anybody at your job about your chronic pain.  Your employer also does not have any legal right to request this information from you; unless it involves health and safety obligations they are required to meet.  

It is your decision when and if you want to tell your employer, ask for accommodations and/or share with your co-workers.  You never have to let anyone know if you don’t want to.

Should You Disclose?

If you believe chronic pain affects your ability to do your job, think about the ways it does and what solutions there might be.  For example, are you leaving work often for medical appointments? Would a flexible schedule or working from home one day a week help your situation?

Or could you benefit from other tools that make it easier to work, such as an ergonomic workstation?  Keyboards, mice, office chairs, standing desks and other ergonomically designed tools are increasingly being used in the workplace because they reduce the risk of back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders. 

A good resource where you can find examples of accommodations for specific medical conditions is the Job Accommodation Network.

Things May Not Go as You Plan

If you choose to disclose, you may not get the response you want. Your employer is prohibited by law from terminating you based on your need for accommodation.  However, they might find other ways to get rid of you or retaliate, such as changing your work schedule or denying you a promotion.

They’re taking a big risk if they do. Any form of retaliation when someone asserts their rights is illegal under the ADA. The question will be -- can you prove it? Always keep good records and notes about your communications with an employer about your medical conditions.

Your employer can deny your request for a specific accommodation, provided they are willing to accommodate you in other ways.  For example, if your office space is cold and your joints hurt more in that environment, they could deny your request for a space heater due to fire concerns, but offer to move you to a warmer section of the office as an alternative.

The good news is that your employer cannot flat out deny your request for accommodation. They are required to make a good faith effort to accommodate you in ways that make it easier to do your job with chronic pain.

Good Employers Want to Keep Good Employees

There are no easy answers as to whether you should or shouldn’t disclose your chronic pain to your employer. You should do what works best for you and your workplace. A good employer will be motivated to keep you and will do everything to accommodate you. Others may not.

Make sure you are continually updating your resume and your skill-set should you need to look for a new job.

I have been fortunate to work for companies that have accommodated my needs as a person with chronic pain.  They have understood my need for a flexible work schedule, an ergonomic workstation, and to be able to leave work early or show up late after medical appointments. They’ve made it easier for me to be successful at my job.

I know the idea of disclosure can make you nervous, but it may help you get the support necessary to be a better employee.  From my experience, most employers are accommodating and want to keep valuable employees. They know that the best employees are found in comfortable workplaces.

Lana Barham.jpg

Lana Barhum is a medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant and mother. Having lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008, Lana uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness. She has written for several online health communities, including Alliance Health, Upwell, Mango Health, and The Mighty.

To learn more about Lana, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Should I Tell Someone About My Invisible Illness?

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

It can be tricky deciding when to tell someone about your chronic pain or invisible illness. You can never take back information once it is shared.

If you choose to disclose that you have a chronic condition or disability, you should decide when and how to do it. Take the time to think about different situations and how you wish to handle them.

Many people feel it is not their place to ask about your physical conditions, but knowing about your pain and limitations could help them understand where you are coming from with your thoughts and actions.

I know a chronic pain patient who liked a neighbor and was interested in dating him.  He often helped around her house with handyman projects, and she would see him out on his porch and go out and talk to him. Eventually, he asked her out and they had a great time.

Over the next few months, they had dates scheduled but she ended up canceling a lot of them. She was just in too much pain. He began to think she was not interested in him and started to pull away.

Friends encouraged her to tell him about her medical condition and what she was going through. She did, and he stuck around for a while, but in the end it did not work out. However, they remained friends and it helped her see that she could still have a social life.

If you’re in this or another social situation, you should think about the following when deciding whether to disclose your condition and how it affects you:

  • Are you able to participate in activities using your coping skills and tools?
  • Do you need accommodations?
  • Are you able to perform the activity safely if you choose not to disclose?
  • Do you think the other person will react in a way that’s appropriate for where you are?

If you are not sure about the latter, you may want to wait until you are in a private setting.

If the situation becomes an intimate relationship, it is very important to share even if it means losing that person. It is not fair to them or you to hold that information back.

If your disability is in remission or typically under control, is there a reason to disclose? It is possible that flare-ups may keep you from future activities, so it would be a good thing to disclose ahead of time. The education you give them may also help someone else they meet along the way.

Finally, how will you address misconceptions about your chronic condition when you disclose? Some people do not believe in treating pain with narcotic medications or had a bad experience with someone else in their life with chronic pain.   

Not disclosing is wrong if you are in a situation that can cause others harm. For instance, when getting on a plane, you shouldn’t be sitting in the exit row. If assigned by mistake, notify the flight crew.

When choosing situations and activities where you do not want to disclose your disability, take time to carefully analyze the activities you are able to do and plan accordingly. Remember, you can always reveal more information later as needed.

Miss Understood: How I Won My Disability Case

By Arlene Grau, Columnist

Early March of this year my second hearing was set with Social Security regarding my disability claim. I had previously been denied and we appealed.

The judge wanted one of their rheumatologists to come in and read my blood tests, doctors’ notes and other medical records, because he said he couldn't decipher them.

Two weeks before our hearing date we got word that the specialist they selected was actually a kidney doctor.

My lawyer wrote the judge informing him that we wanted someone else because we felt that the doctor wasn't qualified for my case. We never heard back from the judge, but the doctor excused herself.

The day of the hearing the judge was as harsh as ever and upset because no one in his office told him about the doctor. He wanted to reschedule my hearing until they got another specialist.

But my lawyer wasn't ready to give up and I was so frustrated at that point that I begged him to let us say our peace. Reluctantly he did.

I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other autoimmune diseases. We were able to prove that I had missed numerous days from work due to hospitalization, surgeries or illness based on time sheets and hospital records. I also have numerous doctors’ appointments every month and had the medical records to prove it. Basically everything the judge had a question for, we had supporting documentation.

I had walked in thinking the judge was going to deny me again, because he had stated that rheumatoid arthritis and lupus aren't disabling diseases. I had plenty to tell him about that, but he just brushed off everything we had to say.

The second time around, he was very different.

I honestly believe that prayer works. That and being prepared. Having all your bases covered and making sure you have all your paperwork squared away. I got a print up of all my doctors’ visits and built a graph of them by month and year. Then I did the same thing for my hospitalizations. I also got a print up of my work time sheets and graphed the days I missed by month and year. For some reason the judge liked the graphs more than the print ups themselves.

In the end, the judge awarded me close to three years of disability that I was owed in retro pay. I’m also now receiving Medicare. Although it took 3 years, I'm glad I didn't give up and that I had so much positive support from friends and family. My family and I are finally able to put this behind us.

Arlene Grau lives in southern California. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus, migraine, vasculitis, and Sjogren’s disease.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.