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Is Disability Right for You?

By Jeanne Lazo

Some health problems start slowly and grow over time into a full-blown disability. Fibromyalgia follows this pattern. If you are still working while trying to cope with this chronic disease, perhaps you have considered going out on disability leave. If this decision seems difficult to make, it undoubtedly is—and for good reasons. Chucking a hard-earned career, one that may have taken years or training, education, and dedication is not easy to do.

One customer service manager, Elaine, said, “I didn’t realize I had a choice. My employer automatically put me on sick leave. After that, I was shifted to long-term disability. The HR people set the wheels in motion and said it was to my benefit to apply for Social Security disability benefits.”  It is a choice—your choice. Ask your Human Resource personnel to give you all of the facts and then you decide. But how will you decide if disability is right for you? Here are some suggestions.

Start with your opinion of your health. How do you feel, both physically and mentally? What things make your condition worse? What medications, treatments, or adaptive devices help? What adjustments do you need to make to feel better? For example, do you need frequent rest periods or do you need to change position frequently?

Analyze your capabilities and limitations. It may be hard to get a grip on your situation. Symptoms may blur together is a fog of pain, suffering, and worry. This is normal. Keep a symptom and pain diary. Track good days and bad days, noting what hurts each day and how badly it hurts on a scale of 1-10. What things are now difficult or impossible for you do? Equally important, what body parts still work well and what type of work could you do with those parts?

Research disability benefits. Are you eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance? To find out, visit the Social Security website: SSA.gov.

Do you have disability insurance through your employer or a private disability insurance policy you purchased on your own, typically through an insurance agent? If so, obtain a copy of the actual policy (request it in writing, if necessary). Read the policy carefully, especially the definition of disability and any clauses that the insurer could use to deny you benefits.

Is your injury job-related? If so, look into Workers’ Compensation. Was your injury triggered by an accident caused by someone else, such as a car accident, in which case a legal case may be applicable.

Once you know what benefits you might be eligible to receive, calculate how much monthly income you might receive from each source (you may be eligible for benefits under more than one plan). Make sure you understand the definition of disability used by each plan for you may be eligible and analyze whether or not you believe you meet their definitions of disability. Find out if there is a waiting period that must be met before benefits will be paid. Find out how long the approval process can take, on average.

Get one or more expert medical opinions of your condition. Have you obtained a second opinion or the opinion of medical specialist? Do you have firm diagnosis and a prognosis for the future? Is this information well-documented in your medical files and supported by appropriate, objective medical testing or laboratory reports?

Schedule a consultation appointment with your doctor. During that visit, review your job description with him/her. What daily-living and work-related tasks are you finding difficult or impossible to do? Does your doctor think your condition meets the definition of disability used by your prospective disability benefit provider(s)? Can your doctor(s) determine if or when you may recover to the point of being able to do your job or any job in the future?

Consult with an attorney who specializes in disability cases. Take the information you uncovered about prospective disability benefit providers, copies of disability policies, if applicable, and all of your medical records with you. Does the attorney think you have strong disability claim that is well-supported by your medical evidence?

Consider the option of other jobs. For some individuals, working in another job without going out on long-term disability may be the best option. Talk to your employer about other jobs you could do. Talk to a community college or university vocational counselor. Contact a career counselor.

What effect would not working have on you emotionally? Work provides more than an income; it provides a social network and the satisfaction that comes from doing something challenging or helping others. How important is working to you? Would you be happier trying to work within your new limitations rather than staying at home? Would you feel more isolated, lonely, and depressed at home?

Analyze your finances. Do you have enough money to live on while you wait for benefits to be approved? Some benefits can take months or years to obtain, and some have a waiting period before benefits start. What will you live on while you wait? Evaluate your financial situation as soon as possible!

Think carefully before accepting reduced hours and lesser pay. Although a less taxing job may be the perfect solution for you, if you find you cannot do that job and later choose to go out on long-term disability, your benefits will be based on the lower-paying job. Also, if you cannot do the less-taxing job, you risk being fired.

Consider your job performance. If you continue working and your job performance slips below the acceptable level, you risk being fired and any employer-sponsored disability insurance you may have will be terminated, too. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect employees in this situation; it only protects employees who were disabled when hired.

Consider your family and loved ones. Should you conserve your limited energy to fulfill your role as a mom, dad, wife, husband, etc.? If it comes down to a choice between your job and your family, evaluate your priorities.       

Read other articles and learn more about Jeanne Lazo.

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