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Diabetes Discrimination in the Workplace: Know Your Rights

Katie Hathaway of the American Diabetes Association offers advice

Laura KolodjeskiLaura Kolodjeski

Discrimination in the workplace has been a popular topic during the American Diabetes Association Twitter and Facebook chats on Diabetes Rights and Discrimination. Katie Hathaway, head of Legal Advocacy for the American Diabetes Association, hosts the chats and has been with the Association since 2003. According to Katie, the Association receives about 250 discrimination-related phone calls each month and just under half involve an employment situation. She joins us today to share information about diabetes discrimination at work and what to do if you feel you’re being discriminated against.

Q: What is employment discrimination and how can someone determine if they are being discriminated against?

A: Discrimination is the act of treating someone differently because of something about them – in this case, their diabetes. In the employment context, it can mean preventing someone from taking breaks to check blood glucose levels, eat and take insulin. It may mean having a job offer taken back after revealing you have diabetes or not being hired because your A1C is too high. It may even be being told you can never have a certain job, like a bus driver or police officer, because you use insulin.

Q: What are some of the most common types of discrimination?

A: Some of the most common types of discrimination involve barriers to diabetes management, as well as a fair amount of ignorance about diabetes. A lot of discrimination may happen because employers do not understand diabetes, or they do not recognize how diabetes affects a particular employee.

We also see a good number of cases involving blanket bans against diabetes – employers who have policies that screen out people living with diabetes before they even have a chance to prove they can do the job. We’ve broken down some of these walls in the past few years, namely with the FBI, the State Department, U.S. Marshalls Service, interstate commercial drivers, firefighters and law enforcement officers.

Q: Are there still professions for which people living with diabetes are not qualified?American Diabetes Association Logo

A: Yes, the military still prohibits enlisting anyone with diabetes. However, it is possible to be granted a waiver of the rules if you are diagnosed with diabetes after enlisting, and you can prove your diabetes is well-managed. Because the antidiscrimination laws that apply to other employers do not apply to the military, this is probably the hardest thing to change.

Additionally, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules do not allow a person who uses insulin to hold the first or second class licensure needed to work as part of a flight crew as a pilot. We are actively working on changing that rule and are hopeful good science and medicine will win eventually.

Sometimes employers still argue that people living with diabetes cannot do certain jobs, which is considered discrimination. We still hear about fire and police departments who won’t hire someone with diabetes. That’s when we get to work fixing those problems, using our approach of “Educate, Negotiate, Litigate, and Legislate.” We bring in our volunteer lawyers, healthcare professionals and our expertise as the American Diabetes Association to try and make sure people with diabetes are treated fairly.

Q: In your professional opinion, should a person living with diabetes disclose their condition to their employer?

A: This is entirely a personal decision, and not one I can make for someone else. There are pros and cons to both choices. If you disclose your diabetes, you may find coworkers who are willing to help you if your blood glucose drops low and you need someone to get you juice. Disclosing your diabetes is also necessary if you need an accommodation to do your job. For example, if you sometimes experience hypoglycemia in the morning and need to arrive late to work and your employer does not know that your late arrival is because of diabetes, you could be at risk for discipline or even discharge.

On the other hand, some people who either don’t need accommodations or who do not want to risk discrimination if they disclose, may choose to keep this information private. In my opinion, there is no wrong choice here.

Q: What should a person do if they feel they are being discriminated against because of their diabetes at work?

A: The first step should be to call the American Diabetes Association at 1-800-DIABETES so we can help you. When you contact us, we’ll provide you with some written materials and connect you with a Legal Advocate who can talk to you about your situation, discuss your legal rights and connect you with other resources in your area.

But there are other tips, too, such as making sure you write down everything that happens to you. It’s incredibly helpful to keep a record of what is said, by whom and what is done. And even though you may choose not to call us right away, it’s important to know that there are deadlines for taking legal action, and some deadlines can be short. The sooner you call, the better.

Q: What advice do you have for people living with diabetes when it comes to workplace discrimination?

A: Try to remember nothing you did made someone else discriminate against you. And then remember that the Association is here to help you.

The work being done by Katie and the Association, to assist those living with diabetes who may be facing discrimination in the workplace is very impressive. A huge thanks to Katie for taking the time to share this education and information.


Laura K.

Disclosure: Katie Hathaway received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.

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  1. Scott
    April 23rd, 2013, 5:11 PM

    Thank you for sharing this information – it’s a tremendous resource for those of us living with diabetes.

    1. Laura
      April 24th, 2013, 11:51 AM

      Agreed, Scott. Quite grateful to Katie for taking the time to ensure our readers are knowledgeable and empowered in this area! Best, Laura

  2. hbryan7421
    April 23rd, 2013, 10:46 AM

    If I had not been able to retire I probably would haved sought advice and counsel. When given the original memo about “sleeping on the job”, an offense for which dismissal was certain, I thought for several days about how to reply to this memo and then it came to me, write and sight information about diabetes from your experience as a speaker, which I did and submitted the resulting memo to be put in my file. Then I received another memo about seeing the employers doctor, etc and no mention of diabetes was in the memo but “a medical condition” was cited. Of course I knew what that was about and when a certain individual’s name in the employee of the employer was mentioned, I knew even more than my supervisor probably thought I knew.
    So again, after reviewing the options, I submitted my retirement letter. It’s disheartening when an individual has worked hard for an employee and poured his heart and soul into the job and did a lot of really good things both for the employer and indirectly for the people of the surrounding area because of accomplishments in his work, but that’s the way it is sometimes.

    1. Laura
      April 23rd, 2013, 12:09 PM

      Thank you for sharing your personal story with us! While your experience must have been very challenging, we commend you for your commitment to sharing your knowledge and experiences with the diabetes community.
      Best, Laura K

  3. hbryan7421
    April 23rd, 2013, 10:37 AM

    I know a bit about this firsthand as I had been employed in a position of management of a group at an employer for nearly 18 years when things changed. During the last 1.5 years new people had been put in place at the top of the department under which I worked that seemed to not understand anything about diabetes. My employees knew about it and a few of the people still there when I started knew about it.
    I was accused of sleeping on the job which I denied. I told them about my diabetes and tried to explain to them that at times a low may look similar to sleeping on the job but I was not asleep. When given a written memo the date of the “sleeping on the job” was on a day I was not even at work, in fact I was a few hundred miles away giving a talk about diabetes because of a program I am in that matches people managing their diabetes successfully with diabetes support groups to encourage them. I was told I had to take 2 weeks medical leave, see the employers doctor of choice, get a letter from my doctor and take a sleep study. Of course I was hurt, upset and angry because in the past I had earned for 6 years in a row Distinguished Performance Award and I drove 125 miles round trip a day. One person had the audacity to ask me if I wanted someone to drive me to their doctor and I said no thank you since i have to drive 62 miles home I think I can drive a few miles to your doctor. The final conclusion of their doctor was “It can’t be determined whether he was asleep or not and he can return to full duty”. When I returned to full duty I was not allowed to manage my department and it’s responsibilities and the two months or so I remained there it was very difficult as I was not really given anything to do and yet I had to keep busy and “stay awake”. I was at an age that I really planned to work a few more years before retiring but as I checked into my retirement benefits from my employer I had more than met the requirements for retirement and being able to draw SS, though a couple of years earlier than I had planned, I submitted my request for retirement effective Dec. 23rd of that year. Yes, I still miss working in my profession that started in 1965 right out of high school but I don’t miss the drive, save a tremendous amount of money for gas and it gives me more time to speak to people at support groups and other settings about diabetes, to share some of my story about diabetes (diagnosed in 1972) and some ideas to hopefully help them manage their diabetes successfully or better.
    If I had not been able to reitre I probably would have sought legal advice and when given the memo from