If you suffer from back or neck pain, it can be difficult to work a full day. The ADA may offer you some workplace protections by requiring your employer to provide reasonable accommodations that will allow you to do your job.
You have a disability under the ADA if you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of your major life activities. Many back and neck injuries and conditions will qualify as disabilities because they significantly affect daily tasks like sleeping, walking, pushing, pulling, lifting, sitting, standing, and so on. You don’t have to be utterly unable to perform an activity to be substantially limited. If it is more painful, more difficult, or more time-consuming for you to perform an activity than it is for people in the general population, that counts as a substantial limitation. (For more information, see our article on when back and neck pain are disabilities under the ADA.)
Minor and temporary conditions don’t count as disabilities. If, for example, you pull a muscle in your back, but feel fine after icing the injury and taking anti-inflammatories for a few days, you don’t have a disability under the ADA.
Employees with disabilities have the right to reasonable accommodations: modifications to the workplace, workspace, job, work rules, or policies that will allow them to do their work. Your employer must provide an accommodation unless it would create undue hardship. (An accommodation creates an undue hardship if it would impose significant expense or burden on the employer, considering the employer’s size, resources, and structure.)
If you need a reasonable accommodation, you should ask for one. Your supervisor isn’t required to guess that you have a problem. If your back pain is making it painful or difficult to sit at your desk all day, walk long distances to meetings and events, or lift boxes, for example, you should tell your manager that you have a disability and need an accommodation.
You are not legally required to make your request in writing, but it’s a good idea. That way, you can make sure you have clearly communicated your needs, and you’ll have a record of your request. Once you’ve requested an accommodation, your employer may ask for more information or documentation of your condition and how it is impacting your ability to do your job.
Your employer doesn’t have to provide exactly the accommodation you request, but it must engage in a “flexible, interactive process” with you to try to come up with an accommodation that will be effective. For example, if your back pain is making it difficult to sit at your desk and use your computer, you may request a particular type of orthopedic desk chair that is very expensive. Your employer might instead suggest a series of ergonomic changes to your workstation, such as raising your screen height, adjusting your seating position, and buying you a foot rest. As long as these changes allow you to work without pain, they are an effective accommodation.
Back and neck pain can present in a variety of ways and cause different limitations. And, of course, the accommodations you need depend on what your job entails. Someone who does manual labor, involving heavy lifting, carrying, digging, and pulling will need different accommodations that someone with a desk job or a position that requires lots of driving, for example. Here are some accommodations that might help with particular limitations caused by back pain or neck pain:
You can find many more accommodation ideas at the website of the Job Accommodation Network.