Years ago, I challenged my former employer with a potential discrimination lawsuit when they gave me a negative evaluation after having a grand mal seizure at work. So, I was fascinated by a March 2022 Irish Times’ article about Gemma Kiernan. Ms. Kiernan also has epilepsy. She filed an Employment Equality Act (EEA) complaint against her employer, Davy Stockbroker after they raised workplace performance issues, she felt were related to her health condition. Passed in 1998, the EEA outlaws employment-related discrimination in several areas and lists nine grounds for discrimination, including disability. The EEA’s disability section is Ireland’s equivalent of the US’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination based on disability. I was reassured to learn the EEA exists and dismayed that epilepsy-related discrimination is universal.
Ms. Kiernan had her first seizure at home during the pandemic, resulting in a three-month sick leave. Davy flagged Ms. Kiernan’s professional competencies in February 2020, prior to being diagnosed with epilepsy. While the initial complaints were clearly unrelated to her health issues, when she returned to work in June, Davy launched a performance improvement plan process, a formal disciplinary action based on employees’ capability. The plan was scheduled to run until mid-September, but it was terminated a month early. At the time, Ms. Kiernan was told she hadn’t met the plan’s improvement indicators, and her that her supervisor had “lost any faith that [Ms. Kiernan’s] work would improve.” Ten days after sharing her neurologist’s verification of her epilepsy diagnosis with Davy, the HR Manager suggested Ms. Kiernan resign, because she couldn’t do her job. Give the suspicious timing, Ms. Kiernan filed an EEA violation claim with the Irish Workplace Relations Commission.
The Commission found that although the issues raised were legitimate and unconnected to Ms. Kiernan’s disability, Davy’s performance improvement plan process “took an unusual turn,” after Ms. Kiernan confirmed her epilepsy diagnosis. Davy abruptly ended the plan without explanation and offered Ms. Kiernan two options: She could leave voluntarily or face disciplinary action. The Commission found that were it not for Ms. Kiernan’s epilepsy, the plan would have continued. On March 24, 2022, they ordered Davy Stockbroker to pay Ms. Kiernan $20,000 Euros (~$21,750) compensation.
Waves of empathy, anger, and relief washed over me as I read Ms. Kiernan’s story. I received a negative evaluation (later resulting in a disciplinary action) less than two months after I had my first grand mal seizure at the office. I had a firsthand experience of the degradation Ms. Kiernan felt when her manager ended her plan and asked her to leave, after sharing her epilepsy diagnosis. Stories like mine and Ms. Kiernan’s are backed by a United Nations report, which found that 50-70% of working age people with disabilities are unemployed in industrialized countries. Given that people with disabilities are the largest minority worldwide, creating inclusive tolerant workplaces is clearly the humane appropriate thing to do.
I’m forever grateful I could rely on the ADA when my former employer pulled similar nasty tactics to those Davy used on Ms. Kiernan. Thanks to the ADA, I received a year’s severance package. While regulations like the ADA and EEA are critical to protecting disabled workers’ rights, the frustrating truth is that laws and regulations alone won’t change workplace culture because they don’t address society’s fears, intolerance, and judgement of those who are differently abled.
In 2014 I was able to get my seizures under control after undergoing two brain surgeries. Now that I have literally seized control of my condition, I am super-aware of how privileged I am to have what appears to be a “normal” body. With my disability camouflaged, I can masquerade as able-bodied. A 2016 report on Disability and Inclusion found that although 30% of employees met the federal definition of having a disability, only 3.2% disclosed this to their employers. I suspect people’s reserve is related to fear of retributions like the ones Ms. Kiernan and I went through.
Although I checked off “yes” on the disability application question for my current job, I waited two years to share my diagnosis with my whole team. While I may not have seizures, I know epilepsy still has stigmas. But studies show that employees who disclose their disability are more than twice as likely to feel happy as those who did not, which benefits both the individuals and the organization. Society, and by extension workplaces, frame health conditions and disabilities as problems to be solved. Consequently, many workplaces categorize disabilities as “afflictions,” resulting in situations like mine and Ms. Kiernan’s.
At a visceral level, I know that genetic conditions, neurological disorders, illnesses, and even simple aging are all part of the basic human condition, and disabilities are natural forms of human diversity. People shouldn’t be disparaged because their bodies are differently abled and breaking down these barriers at the office requires intentionality. Action steps include calling out disability exclusions when we see them, offering disability fundamentals trainings for workplace managers, and establishing disability-focused Employee Resource Groups. Until workplaces and society take deliberate measures to increase people’s tolerance, empathy, and courage, tools like the ADA and EEA will have limited impacts.