Fear and misunderstanding have fastened an unshakable stigma to cancer. But cancer survivors--and, lately, AIDS patients--are hardly alone among victims of serious disease in suffering discrimination in the workplace.
For people with epilepsy, a nervous system disorder characterized by seizures and periods of unconsciousness, job discrimination is the single most serious social problem, according to a 1977 study by the National Epilepsy League. Job bias is so widespread among the nation's 1 million epilepsy sufferers that the U.S. Department of Labor has helped fund a job placement program through the Epilepsy Foundation of America since 1976.
"Many employers are not aware of what epilepsy is, and it's frightening if people have a seizure, so a lot of people are not open to hiring people with epilepsy," explained Patricia Charde, an employment specialist with the Epilepsy Society of Los Angeles County.
The Arthritis Foundation is only beginning to gain an awareness of the job-related problems of arthritis patients, according to Floyd C. Pennington, a vice president of the Atlanta-based organization.
Like many forms of cancer, arthritis is mainly an invisible disease, so sufferers have a hard time winning the support and understanding of employers, Pennington said.
"When they say they have a problem with fatigue or say they have a problem with keeping up pace or say they have a problem with a particular piece of equipment, the boss looks at them and says, 'You look just fine to me,' " he said.
Lupus, a disease of the immune system, can be very visible; in one form, it causes a scaly rash, often on the face. More often, it has few external symptoms, instead causing general weakness, muscular ache and kidney damage.
In either form, it can cause problems at work, according to Judy Strauss, a Los Angeles psychologist whose doctoral dissertation focused on the work-related problems of 40 local women with lupus.
"Most of the problems they had were that they couldn't get enough sick days or their employers didn't understand their fatigue," Strauss said.