Invisible illness, with and without HR


My new life saver and work partner, the Ergotron standing desk

When I was a brand new MA student many years ago I developed a serious GI condition within the first semester of my program. Student health wasn’t particularly equipped to deal with rare or complicated situations, so I bounced around among doctors both in St. Louis and back home in Seattle since I was still on my parents’ insurance. It was a year before I finally got in to see a specialist that could actually help me instead of passing the buck to someone else (or claiming it was in my head), and somehow I was able to complete all my coursework and my thesis.

My friends, cohort, and family knew this was going on, but I never said a word to professors. I smiled and got my work done on time, never asked for help or an extension on a paper. Why? Well, I was scared, school was the only thing that gave me something else to focus on, and I think those of us who have been in academia can attest that showing weakness, especially if what you’re going through is not “visible”, can be problematic for your future prospects. I went to therapy and dealt with things there, never at school.

Those who know me can easily say I’m not one to admit defeat, but this year I did, and I felt more ok in doing so now since I am a regular employee of a University and have access to a very robust HR department. But things have not been easy because my invisible illness this time required visible assistance.

A disc problem in my back has made it impossible for me to sit down for more than a few minutes at a time, and as someone who must be in front of a computer all day, this made things difficult. After constructing an improvised standing desk for myself with file boxes and tilting my monitors as much as they would go, a co-worker suggested I go through HR to see about getting a proper standing desk. The University office of disability services is in charge of what are called “reasonable accommodations,” and through a straightforward process, I was able to provide a note from my doctor indicating my issue, and in a few weeks I had a standing desk, which has changed my life and made it possible for me to do my job. I felt good about advocating for myself, and the University was entirely supportive.

This is when things changed.

At least a dozen colleagues who have walked by my office and seen my standing desk have asked how I was able to get one, when they’ve wanted to get one. “How did you get this special rig? No one else has one.” “These stand-sit workstations are supposed to be good for you, but they won’t get me one. Did you buy it yourself?” “Your department bought it for you? Well, how did you convince them to do that? I heard they’re expensive.”

I’m finding myself having to “prove” my need for this work set up by explaining my medical issues to people who know nothing about me but randomly pass by my office. And I’ve been made to feel bad for “costing my department” for a desk.

It’s none of their business, but I’ve found myself having to smile, just as I did as an MA student, but for a different reason: that I owe it to them to explain why I have something and they don’t. And that’s not right, either.



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