Diabetes and Workplace Discrimination
By Christine Fallabel
What does discrimination look like for people with diabetes? Would you recognize it if it happened at your place of work? Learn the laws that protect you and what to do if it happens to you.
Ty Beringer, 28, has type 1 diabetes and lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He experienced direct workplace discrimination when his former employer wouldn’t let him eat or drink anything while working a shift as a barista in a coffee shop. He essentially was not allowed to treat low blood sugar or drink water for a high blood sugar.
“I was not allowed any food or drinks, including water, during the entirety of my shift, unless I was on break,” says Beringer. “So if my blood sugar went low, I would have to take a break to address it. If I had already taken my break for the day, I would hide behind the industrial refrigerator and secretly eat some candy as fast as I could. If my blood sugar was high, I would sneak a correction dose, but it was really rough not being able to drink water.”
Working there became too difficult, and eventually, he quit.
The laws that protect you
If you’ve ever been on a job search, you might have seen this familiar note at the bottom of many job postings: This company is an equal opportunity employer that does not discriminate based on a person’s national origin, race, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.
Where does this language come from? Do all employers practice what they preach?
Whether or not you personally identify as having a disability, diabetes is considered a protected disability under federal law. You cannot legally be discriminated against in the workplace because of your diabetes, hiring practices cannot be discriminatory against people with diabetes, and “reasonable accommodations” are guaranteed under law.
Reasonable accommodations means allowances for any actions that are necessary for someone with diabetes to adequately take care of themselves. This may include being able to treat low blood sugars while at work, even in places where food and drink are prohibited; testing your blood sugar or taking insulin when you need to; stopping work to sit down and treat a low blood sugar; or taking frequent bathroom breaks if your blood sugar is high. You may also be permitted more sick days, time to leave work for endocrinology appointments, or flexibility with deadlines.
Two pieces of legislation solidified specific protections for people with disabilities, including diabetes:
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 first established protections for people with disabilities, including diabetes, by prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in any program or activity operated by recipients of federal funds. Federal funds funnel into all sorts of programs and activities, including health care, education, social services, infrastructure, and public safety, which provide most of the nation’s jobs.
This is where the name “504 plan” comes from. A 504 plan is a legally protected plan for students with disabilities who need accommodations at school to thrive, and many children with diabetes have 504 plans in place to better succeed at school.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, further clarified the rights won in the 1970s. This civil rights law specifically prohibits discrimination based on disability in the public sphere and first outlined the need to guarantee reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. The definition of reasonable accommodations was intentionally left vague, as every person with a disability will require a slightly different accommodation, and what is considered “reasonable” may vary from situation to situation.
An employer, however, is not mandated to provide an accommodation that would involve “undue hardship” (difficulty or expense), but this is all subjective and situational.
It is not required that you tell your employer that you have diabetes. You are protected against discrimination whether or not you disclose your personal health or medical information.
But wait! I’m not disabled!
You may not feel that you are disabled, but under federal law, diabetes is considered a disability because it substantially limits the function of the endocrine system—a system that is necessary to life. The definition of having a disability doesn’t mean that you are limited on the outside, but it’s about what your body is limited in doing on the inside.
Diabetes is considered a disability even if your glucose levels are within your target range and you have no complications. And while you may not personally identify with the words “disabled” and “disability,” and you may not consider diabetes a disability at all, you do fall under a protected class under federal law.
Requesting reasonable accommodations at work
Don’t assume that your employer will know you need reasonable accommodations—ask for them. Some employers have an official policy in place for how to make these requests, but most do not. Here are some ways to request reasonable accommodations:
Submit a written request, either to your supervisor or human resources (HR) department. Be as specific as possible with what you need and how it will help you succeed in your job. For example, saying, “I need to have a chair to sit down if my blood sugar falls below 60 mg/dL,” is specific and reasonable.
Meet with your supervisor when you’re first hired to talk about your needs and requests.
Be willing to negotiate and compromise, but be firm with your needs.
It’s best to have these conversations as soon as you’re hired, but if you haven’t had one yet, it is never too late to request reasonable accommodations. Any worthwhile employer will meet your needs so you can thrive in your role.
Recognizing discrimination at the workplace
Unfortunately, even with these protections in place, discrimination in the workplace because of diabetes happens every single day—and many times, it goes unreported. Some people may not even realize that they’re being discriminated against because it can be subtle. Other people with diabetes are put into uncomfortable situations that make taking care of themselves and staying safe difficult.
Jess Known, who lives with type 1 diabetes and works in tech, was working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. She requested to continue doing so after everyone at her company was mandated to return to the office.
People with diabetes comprise nearly 40% of COVID deaths. Diabetes puts people in the high-risk category for severe infection and increased risk of hospitalization, so taking extra precautions is necessary. In Known’s case, her request was denied.
Having the ability to mask in public, travel more safely, or even request remote work during high levels of COVID transmission are essential for people living with diabetes. If your employer is denying any of these reasonable accommodations, it’s time to speak up.
Sometimes the discrimination is more subtle. Susan Brodsky, who lives with type 1 diabetes, said she suffered microaggressions at work when she lived in New York City, when she asked for dedicated refrigerator space to store juice to treat low blood sugars.
People at work would remove her juices from the fridge to make room for their lunches, and they would often roll their eyes at her when she mentioned that she needed the space to keep her low-blood-sugar snacks cold.
Other people have mentioned that they’ve been passed over for promotions, prohibited from playing on work-related sports clubs, or even denied work travel because of their “brittle” diabetes. These are all forms of workplace discrimination that are illegal and should be reported.
What to do if you feel you’ve been discriminated against
First things first: document, document, document. If you feel that you’ve been discriminated against, make sure to save any emails or notes you’ve received, or anything in writing that points to discrimination. If other people were privy to comments made, whether at a work event or in a team meeting, they can help confirm your report.
Any discriminatory actions need to be reported immediately to your HR department, which is well-versed in federal law, especially as it relates to protections for people with disabilities.
If you feel that your HR department is not addressing the issue, other avenues are available:
File a formal complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This commission investigates companies and organizations that are not complying with federal laws that protect people with disabilities from discrimination. Once your complaint is filed, they will conduct a thorough investigation of the incident and any parties involved.
Hire a disability discrimination lawyer. These lawyers specialize in employment law and can help you if you wish to sue a company that has discriminated against you. This is particularly helpful if you’ve been fired from your job because of your disability. Many companies will want to settle out of court if a lawsuit is being filed against them.
Take your story to the media. This is a nightmare for many companies, especially if they have a reputation to uphold (for example, if they’re a health care or diabetes-related organization). Spreading awareness and letting other people know what has happened to you—and how they can prevent discrimination from happening to them—is empowering.
Beringer ruminated on his past experiences of being discriminated against. “At the time, I didn’t understand what rights I had as a disabled worker, so I thought I just had to deal with the discrimination. My boss didn’t care about diabetes and just told me the rules are the same for everyone. I really wish I had known back then what I know now.”