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Migraines and workplace discrimination

“I have a migraine,” you tell your boss. Your boss rolls her eyes and says, “I get terrible headaches, too. Take some Advil.”

Except a migraine isn’t a headache — although it (usually) makes your head hurt. A migraine is actually a complex neurological condition that can involve excruciating pain, visual disturbances, balance problems, nausea and vomiting — among other things. Some people may suffer one or two migraines in their entire life, while other people suffer from them nearly daily. Controlling chronic migraines can take a great deal of experimentation with medication — and frequent visits to a neurologist and pain clinic.

Unfortunately, the misunderstanding that people have about migraines (confusing them for ordinary tension headaches) and the fact that they are an “invisible” condition contributes to the fact that many victims of migraines are discriminated against at work. Instead of being treated as the victims of a terribly debilitating condition, they’re treated with eye rolls and sighs, accused of just trying to get out of work or exaggerating their symptoms.

However, many migraine victims may be entitled to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if they provide their employer with documentation of their condition and a clear understanding of the accommodations they need in order to function normally at work.

Depending on whether your migraine episodes can be triggered by lighting, noise, weather shifts or something else and the nature of your job, here are some of the accommodations you might reasonably request:

  • The ability to take leave in order to lay down in a quiet place while your abortive migraine drugs take effect
  • Anti-glare screens for your computer and fluorescent light filters
  • A flexible leave schedule to accommodate your doctor visits and migraine episodes (including the ability to either take work home or telecommute)
  • A work location that is away from the noisiest part of the office or noise-canceling headphones

What can you expect from your employer once he or she learns of your condition? It’s hard to say. Some employers will be more supportive than others. If your accommodation request is denied, however, you may need to pursue a workplace discrimination claim in order to protect your rights.