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Memo to employers: Don’t fear workers with MS

My experience living with Multiple Sclerosis has made me a better employee, and a better person


February 3, 2020
By Ally Cunliffe

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Photo: Sudok1/Getty Images

When I first went public on social media with my Multiple Sclerosis (MS) diagnosis, I received a flood of kind and supportive messages from friends and family. People I hadn’t talked to in years reached out to provide support and advice from their personal experiences of having close friends or relatives with MS.

It was all so helpful and reassuring to know I wasn’t alone, and this is a disease that affects more people than I ever previously thought. It’s not just those of us with the diagnosis — it’s our friends, family and colleagues.

I was often told how brave I was for sharing my diagnosis publicly — a disease that tens of thousands of Canadians live with.

I understand that’s it’s perceived as brave because when people think of someone with MS, they feel pity and sadness and think that you’re inherently less capable.

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These perceived judgements can lead to unfair treatment in the workplace. A study was conducted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on discrimination against workers with MS, compared to groups of people with other types of disabilities. The findings suggested there are significant issues related to job retention and progression compared to the other groups, with people leaving their positons far sooner in life due to their workplace not successfully accommodating their disabilities.

Telling my employer

To be completely honest, I was nervous to tell my employer about my recent diagnosis. This had nothing to do with the employer specifically, but rather I didn’t want to be perceived as less capable. Through reading blogs and listening to podcasts, I’ve heard countless stories of others who’ve shared their diagnosis with negative outcomes. Full disclosure, I was very hesitant to share my story in Talent Canada magazine, but I realize this is exactly why I need to.

We need to change the narrative on people living with this disease, so we can continue to utilize their unique talents and experiences in the workplace.

We need to create an open dialogue on the struggles those of us with MS face, and how simple and reasonable accommodations could help us continue to be valuable and highly capable employees.

Like many of us, my experience living with MS has made me a better employee, and a better person.

Higher emotional intelligence

Not only has my MS made me physically tougher, able to withstand more pain and discomfort, it has also improved my emotional intelligence.

I am more empathetic now than I ever was before. Everyone has struggles and I can relate to my colleagues and clients on a personal level, and build rapport through genuine and meaningful interactions.

My MS has made me incredibly self-aware, I know my strengths and weaknesses. I know that I need to work on improving my balance just like I need to work on improving my public speaking skills. Like many people, I get stage fright in front of large audiences despite my strong interpersonal and communication skills. I’m not going to be a tightrope walker, and I’m not going to be the next Tony Robbins, but I continue to work on these skills because I know how important they are.

Stress is a trigger

Having MS means I need to listen to my body and mind. Stress is a trigger for MS relapses, so those of us who have it are experts at being able to control our emotions and self-regulate. We won’t let Karen in accountings’ negative attitude or criticism get us down, we have more important things to worry about — so we stay positive and move forward.

With MS, you can never take yourself too seriously. Getting a life-changing diagnosis alters your perspective, so we know what is truly important in life. We joke and we have fun, all while being high performing employees you can count on.

But most of all, we’re adaptable. We face new physical and emotional challenges on a daily basis, and we adapt to them. We’re problem solvers that are skilled at pivoting in business and in life.

Looking back on why my friends and family labeled me brave for coming forward with my diagnosis is the same reason why I was nervous to tell my employer — for fear of pity and incorrect assumptions about my abilities. But I realized that this disease has made me stronger, more empathetic, self-aware, adaptable, and has given me a new perspective on life, and I’m glad to say that my employer agrees.

While living with Multiple Sclerosis means you’re dealing with difficult challenges every day, what comes along with that is a unique skillset that provides you with the tools to rise to those challenges.

We need to change the narrative for people living with MS to highlight what we’re capable of. We’re bright, passionate, hardworking, and probably right under your nose in the office across from you.

Donate to make a difference

Living with MS is much better now than it was even just five to 10 years ago. Treatments are available and people are leading full lives for longer with a much slower disease progression. This is thanks to research being done by the MS Society. Please consider donating to this cause so we can find a cure in my lifetime.

Ally Cunliffe works with large organizations to help them achieve their corporate social responsibility goals through investment, employee engagement and diversity and inclusion programs. She also advocates and volunteers with her local MS Society chapter in the Simcoe and Muskoka regions of Ontario.