In college, I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that can spread to your joints, heart, and nervous system if not treated in a timely manner. With a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line placed in my arm, I had no idea how I was going to be able to work full-time or even convince a company to hire me.
I ended up landing a job in Washington, D.C., and didn’t think of myself as “disabled” at the time, so I chose not to check that box on my application. Months into the role, I was still struggling to find my place. It felt as though today’s workplace wasn’t designed for people like me.
Hannah Olson in the hospital with an IV and PICC line, circa 2015
About 10 months into my role, I reached a tipping point and decided to leave that company. I then joined a startup where my new boss, Kai, welcomed me with open arms. My new colleagues never made me feel ashamed of my disability, and I felt confident for the first time since my PICC line insertion.
I knew that my story wasn’t unique, and I wanted others out there to find a boss like Kai, so the two of us teamed up to build an employment platform called Chronically Capable. I’ve spent the last few years working closely with job seekers and employers and have developed a deep understanding of the challenges many of us face while looking for a job that’s in line with our health needs.
It’s easy to lose hope in the job search process, especially when managing your condition can feel like a full-time job on its own. I want to share some tips that have helped guide me throughout my career that can also help you keep that hope.
For the first few years after being diagnosed, I felt incredibly discouraged and didn’t think I could contribute much to the workplace. In reality, I was (and still am) a highly capable human being that has gained countless skills throughout my health journey.
For example, due to my condition and intensive treatment plan, I am empathetic, resilient, and great with time management. I’ve gained empathy for others through speaking with the chronic illness community and hearing about their stories. These skills are all transferable to the workplace. Take inventory of the strengths you have gained during your journey managing a bleeding disorder and highlight them during your interview process.
Sometimes it’s hard to see friends, family, and colleagues thriving when you know that you’re just as capable. I’ve spent hours upon hours comparing myself to other people my age: “I could be getting an MBA,” “I should have a higher salary by now,” “I should be promoted already,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
It’s important to remember that there’s no one distinct path that we need to follow to achieve our career goals. Like the game Chutes and Ladders, there will be ups and downs before you reach the last square, and each time you play, the course will differ. Remember that you are here for a reason, and every player will reach their destination in the end. It’s okay to be on your own timeline!
We know how isolating chronic illness and disability can be. I’ve spent hours alone in hospital rooms, I’ve had to skip social events, I’ve been stuck in bed for days. It’s easy to feel alone in these situations. While it’s unfortunate that more than half of the U.S. population lives with a chronic condition, it also means that there are tens of millions of people out there who understand what you’re going through.
During my first job after college, I found myself living in a new city, with a boss who didn’t support me and nobody to lean on. I decided to start exploring online communities for people managing chronic illnesses. There, I met friends who could empathize with everything I was feeling.
Recently, many companies have started employee resource groups (ERGs), which are safe spaces for employees to connect with others who have shared experiences. While there might not be a bleeding disorders-specific ERG, there are often disability groups that support those living with chronic conditions.
In an ideal world, every company would be inclusive (we’re working on that!). Even though much progress has been made in the past few years, some companies have not prioritized the integration of people with health conditions.
You’ll likely need to find a flexible job that you will be able to perform physically and that provides health insurance. While setting your career goals, it’s important to think about both your abilities and your limitations. When looking for a job that accommodates your bleeding disorder, pay careful attention to the company’s remote work policies, accommodation offerings, and healthcare coverage.
The great news is that there are thousands of companies out there that can accommodate your needs. Don’t lose hope — the right job at the right company is out there.
If you’re looking for career support, we encourage you to join us at Chronically Capable. You can also find other career resources through the Hemophilia Federation of America’s Helping Forward program.
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