Introduction by ACC Docket’s Publisher & Directory of Surveys Kim Howard:
This month’s issue of the ACC Docket covers employment and human resources issues. I have managed different work situations and staff, but I have never worked with or managed someone who openly had a life-changing health issue. I turn this month’s blog post over Bret Parker, who announced his Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis almost exactly one year ago to the public and his office. Here, Bret gives us the employee side of the story, and shares how his legal department received his news.
Publicly Announcing My Parkinson’s Diagnosis — One Year Later
When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at age 38 in 2007, I told almost no one. There were a lot of reasons I kept it secret, but my legal career was near the top of the list. I didn’t want decisions about my job (or future jobs) to be made based on misperceptions, sympathy or prejudice. Then, in March 2012, I told everyone at once by publishing a blog on the Forbes website. Since then, I became increasingly public about my medical condition, started actively fundraising for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and was profiled in the Wall Street Journal. What a year it has been!
As it turns out, my fear about negative reactions at work was all for nothing. My colleagues reached out to me with concern and understanding. Every interaction has been another opportunity to educate someone about Parkinson’s Disease; to raise awareness and break the stereotype that only “older” people have this condition. In fact, my company has embraced me and my campaign to educate the public by having me write about it on the company intranet. What I feared would become a liability actually became a badge of courage as people thanked and complimented me for disclosing my condition. For example, one of my marketing clients heard about my condition and confided that her mother was struggling with Parkinson’s — I was even able to refer her to my neurologist for a second opinion.
I feel undeserving of the attention, but somehow my candor makes others feel comfortable about describing and revealing their own individual issues — let’s face it, at one time or another we all have some health challenges. My illness has made me more empathetic when I learn that work colleagues are juggling personal health issues and professional obligations.
My hope is that my experience will help shatter the illusion that a disability like this would keep me from working and performing at a high level. It still requires me to balance my health and my job. Lack of sleep, stress and excitement each tend to exacerbate my symptoms. (This is a perfect storm for someone like me, with a challenging and busy in-house job!) Luckily, my symptoms are still moderate and don’t significantly impact me at work.
Meanwhile, other Parkinson’s patients who had heard about my disclosure have reached out for advice on disclosing at their jobs. One banker who contacted me said that people at his work noticed his tremor, but since he had not disclosed that he has Parkinson’s, his co-workers actually thought he had the shakes from alcoholism or drug addiction. It made me realize that it was better to reveal my illness on my own terms before the symptoms were so noticeable that people incorrectly assumed things about me.
The irony is that as more people disclose their medical conditions, the less of a stigma they will create. And while it’s a personal decision, and everyone is free to keep their personal information private, telling people is still one of the best things I’ve ever done.
There are still awkward moments. People aren’t always sure what to say or whether to say anything at all. I try to diffuse those moments by offering up a status update (“I feel great and hopefully this will continue to progress slowly”) or a joke (if you haven’t seen the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode featuring Larry David and Michael J. Fox, I highly recommend it). At the end of the day, I’m happy if people express occasional interest and compassion, but generally I think that my condition shouldn’t be the focus for people at work and certainly shouldn’t limit my career path. It’s an important part of who I am, but doesn’t define me. In today’s workplace, that’s a tough balance to maintain, but it’s worth the effort.
Bret I. Parker is vice president and associate general counsel at Elizabeth Arden, Inc. and president-elect of the International Trademark Association (INTA). He serves as a member of the Patient Council of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.