I have Type 1 diabetes. I work at the register and returns desk of a home improvement store. I need breaks to monitor my blood sugar and give myself insulin, if necessary. I also need to be able to eat and drink, as needed, to maintain proper blood sugar levels. I'm lucky, in that I have been successful in controlling my disease and haven't had many of the progressive effects associated with diabetes. However, my employer doesn't think I have a disability, because I "seem fine." How can I get the accommodations I need?
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Congress amended the ADA several years ago, in part to make clear that it intended this definition to be read broadly, so as many people as possible were protected by the law. One of the changes Congress made was to expand the definition of a major life activity to include the proper functioning of major bodily systems. Because diabetes limits the proper functioning of the endocrine system, diabetes virtually always qualifies as a disability.
As you have seen, however, having the law on your side isn't always the end of the story. You should start pressing your case by writing a letter to your employer, explaining your condition and requesting a reasonable accommodation. (You can find a sample letter, and tips on what to include in yours, in our article Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation.) Attach documentation from your doctor confirming your condition and clearly stating your need to monitor and control your blood sugar at work. Give copies of your letter to your manager and your company's HR department.
Because you have a disability, you are entitled to reasonable accommodations from your employer to allow you to do your job. In your case, the accommodations you need are free and easy to provide. You should ask to be allowed to eat and drink at your station when necessary. Even if your employer has a general rule prohibiting employees from eating while on duty, a reasonable accommodation can involve bending workplace rules to meet your needs. You should also ask for breaks as necessary to check your blood sugar and medicate yourself, as well as a private place to do both.
For more examples of accommodations, see the Job Accommodation Network's Accommodation Ideas for Diabetes. You can find more information at the EEOC's Questions and Answers About Diabetes in the Workplace.