It would be nice if turning 60 meant more time to focus on home décor, dating, personal style, new and delicious recipes, investing opportunities, retirement, travel, or the latest makeup tips. But for many women, turning 60 means raising grandchildren, financial insecurity, low-paying jobs, elder care responsibilities, and even food insecurity.

Add to that having a physical limitation or disability that makes continued working a supreme challenge, and you have the reality of millions of women who are all but ignored by society. If you are – or know – one of these women, all is not lost.

This Is Not Just a Story

Take the case of Kathy A. Kathy had what she thought was a secure job with a local government agency. Single and helping to raise her grandchildren, she had relocated to Colorado to help with caring for an elderly aunt who was in her mid-80s.

Kathy loved her job and had no plans for retirement.

Then suddenly, she was struck with a life threatening medical condition that left her out of work for nearly six months. Kathy was now disabled. But Kathy knew that there were laws that prevented her employer from terminating her employment because of her disability.

She knew that, in most cases, the law required her employer to accommodate her disability so she can continue working after recovering. However, Kathy’s employer was unsympathetic and refused to even discuss possible accommodations. Kathy was fired from the job that she loved and which provided financial security for her and her grandchildren.

A Unique Scenario? Not Really

Although there are laws that are intended to prevent discrimination of any kind, many employers simply refuse to follow them. In Kathy’s case, she was smart enough to hire an attorney to protect her rights. What ensued was a five-year long court battle that nearly tore Kathy’s life apart.

Fortunately, an appellate court ruled in Kathy’s favor, finding that her employer should have attempted to accommodate Kathy’s disability instead of summarily firing her.

Is Going to Court the Only Solution?

But let’s face it. The goal is not to be involved in long-term litigation but to prevent employers from taking such adverse action in the first place.

Here’s a short check-list of what to do if you find yourself suddenly unable to work because of a medical condition or disability:

#1 Act Right Away

If possible, immediately notify your employer that you will be out of work or that you will need some type of accommodation to continue working. If you can’t communicate with them yourself right away, ask a friend or family member do so.

#2 Have a Return Date

Get your doctor to provide your employer with an expected date (or time frame) of your return to work. For example, an expected return date in 30 days or six weeks or three months. If more time is needed, a second medical notice can be provided in the future.

In most cases, employers are required to provide a “reasonable” amount of time off in order to accommodate your disability and allow you to recover. Your medical provider should not give an “indefinite” or “unknown” return date.

In some jurisdictions, the employer is not required to wait indefinitely for the employee to recover and return to work. Therefore, if the medical provider offers no expected time frame to return, you may be fired once all leave is exhausted.

#3 Know Your Employee Rights

Find out what your employer’s policies are on time off or medical leave of absence. In most cases, employers are required to provide leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. Also, leave may be extended beyond that time to comply with other laws that protect disabled workers. Some employers may also have more generous leave policies.

#4 Discuss Accommodations

Don’t delay discussing the topic of accommodations. Some types of accommodation may include, but are not limited to:

  • additional time off
  • job restructuring
  • temporary light duty work
  • working from home
  • part-time or modified work schedules
  • reassignment to a vacant position
  • acquisition or modification of equipment or devices
  • appropriate adjustment or modification of examinations
  • training materials or policies
  • the provision of qualified readers or interpreters
  • other similar accommodations.

#5 Whatever You Discuss, Put It in Writing

Get your employer’s written response to your request for an accommodation. If they will not put it in writing, then send a confirming email or letter to the individual that provided the response and to your human resources department outlining the employer’s response to your request for an accommodation.

Realize that there are no guarantees that employers will follow the law, but if you arm yourself with these few simple steps, you stand a better chance of being able to continue working with your disability.

Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. If you have concerns about your rights at work, it is recommended that you seek advice from a professional attorney in your area as laws may vary by jurisdiction.

Have you experienced a short- or long-term disability that rendered you unable to return to your job for a while? What was your employer’s response? How did you handle the communication with them? What advice or personal story can you share with our community?

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