Epilepsy in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

Published July 27, 2020

The first step in understanding the needs and rights of employees with epilepsy is to understand the condition. Epilepsy is a chronic condition of the neurological system, also known as a seizure disorder. A person with epilepsy has abnormal electrical activity in the brain that leads to involuntary functioning of the body, a condition that can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.

Three million adults in the U.S. and 65 million people worldwide have epilepsy. One-third of those people live with uncontrolled seizures because no treatments work for them, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.

There are two major types of epilepsy, according to the Cleveland Clinic. One is partial epilepsy, also known as focal or localized epilepsy. In this condition, abnormal electrical activity occurs in a localized part of the brain. Symptoms commonly relate to sensory, motor, autonomic, or psychological responses. A person’s awareness may be affected, making them disconnected or "out of it" for the duration of the seizure.

The second type is generalized epilepsy, in which the entire brain is affected by involuntary brain impulses. Symptoms vary greatly but can include the following:

  • Clonic seizures cause rhythmic thrashing of the entire body.
  • Tonic seizures are characterized by rigid stiffness of the body, rendering a person unable to move.
  • Grand mal seizures (generalized tonic-clonic) are the most severe. People typically lose consciousness, their body stiffens, they thrash uncontrollably, and often lapse into a deep sleep.
  • Atonic seizures cause the person to lose muscle strength, usually in the arms or legs, and often fall.
  • Absence seizures cause people to lose consciousness, usually for just a few seconds. A person having this kind of seizure may suddenly appear to stare blankly in the middle of an activity or conversation.

It is important to note that epilepsy varies widely from person to person and each individual’s symptoms may present differently. The Mayo Clinic provides a great overview.

Must employees disclose that they have epilepsy?

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability-based discrimination in the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the federal agency that enforces ADA rules in the workplace, states that it is important that people with epilepsy discuss the condition with their employers if they believe it will affect their ability to do a job.

Under the ADA rules, employers must create accommodations that enable employees to perform the essential duties of the job without placing undue burden on the employer. Employers with more than 15 employees may not ask any health-related questions until after a job offer has been extended. It is not mandatory that the employee share their medical information to the employer unless it will affect the essential functions of the job.

Employees must be a “qualified individual” who is able to perform the essential functions of the job to be protected by the ADA. It is always up to employees whether they choose to discuss epilepsy with their potential employer, keeping in mind their ability to do the job. The Epilepsy Foundation also gives the reminder that reasonable accommodations should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Flexibility is Key

When speaking with an employee, be as specific as possible about their needs. Sharon Smith, content producer at Short and Sweet Media and a person with epilepsy, shared some examples of common accommodations she’s seen for people with epilepsy:

  • Avoiding flickering lights or computer screens
  • Regular access to water (hydration is important for seizure control)
  • Employees are excused from climbing ladders or doing tasks at elevated heights that may cause dizziness
  • Allowance for lay down after a seizure to recover
  • Travel considerations, like no red-eye flights, because irregular sleep patterns can trigger seizures

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