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Employment, the ADA, & Civil Rights with Joe Mantegna & Sandy Finucane

The majority of people with epilepsy can have a job and work in a wide array of jobs, just like someone who does not live with seizures. But many people still don’t understand this. So there has been widespread discrimination against people living with epilepsy when it comes to employment. The Americans with Disabilities Act has helped fight this discrimination. In addition, people talking about epilepsy has raised awareness and education among the general public, including employers. We all need to continue to talk about epilepsy and learn what seizures are… and what they aren’t… to continue moving us toward true equality in employment and education. That means we all need to keep talking about epilepsy.


Actor Joe Mantegna: People with epilepsy can do things like play in the NFL or be a Supreme Court Justice. Still, someone can lose their job, or not get a job, because they have seizures. Fortunately, things are starting to change.

Alexandra (Sandy) Finucane, Senior Advisor (Epilepsy Foundation).

Sandy Finucane: The overwhelming majority of people with epilepsy can work,  despite having epilepsy, because most people seize for a number of reasons. Seizures are episodic. When you're not having a seizure, for many people it doesn't affect them at all. And the majority of people can have their seizures controlled with current medications. So there are many people who would say, "I don't need any help in the workplace – I just want to work and I am able to work."

Greg Grunberg: And a lot of those people are the ones who don't tell anybody. My son for example: he's not seizure-free, but he, along with a lot of people – you just don't know they have epilepsy. They're a normal part of a workplace, so what rights do people who are working in companies have? 

Sandy: First of all, it's very important that everybody with epilepsy know that the ADA – the Americans with Disabilities Act – covers people with epilepsy and seizure disorders. Which means, you do have employment rights not to be discriminated against because you have a condition like epilepsy. As long as you can do the essential functions of the job, you can't automatically say a person with epilepsy can't do "x" job. You have to really look at the essential functions. So that's really important. The accommodation has to be reasonable, not unduly hard on the company, again a factual question, then under the ADA any employer that has more than 15 employees is bound by the law to offer a reasonable accommodation. 

Greg: I'll give you an example of one that I know of, which is, if you have epilepsy, sometimes you have a  hard time getting to work at 6 a.m. I mean, you need sleep. Sleep is important. A nap could be possibly important. So that might just be a case like, "Is there somewhere I can just rest my head, for 15 minutes?" For Jake, it's a HUGE difference if he has a nap during the day or not. 

Sandy: And that's what the ADA is talking about as well, and it's just a question of negotiating with the employer over those kinds of details. So in order to do that, you then would have to reveal to the employer that you have a disability, and that you require – or you would like – a specific accommodation.

Greg: And does that go on a permanent record somewhere, once that you reveal it…?

Sandy: Well, I'd say "permanent record" is a hard question to answer, but certain the employer and HR might know that, but they're supposed to separate those details from the rest of the workplace, unless your supervisor needs to know. And that's also a safety factor; we know that many people don't tell their employer that they have epilepsy… until they're actually on the job and working… and it's a very personal decision for some people to make. There can be consequences that are negative if you tell, so people wait and see… "Do I really need to tell? Is now the time?" I think it's a very good idea to let somebody else in the workplace know that, if you have a seizure, this is what you should do.

Joe Mantegna: The best way to make the workplace better for people with epilepsy is for everyone to learn more and to talk about it. I'm Joe Mantegna. Thanks for talking about it.