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Accommodating Ataxia in the Workplace: Don't Make Assumptions

Find out more about accommodations for workers with ataxia

From the desk of Lisa Mathess, M.A., SHRM-CP, Lead Consultant, Motor Team


Grayson, a marketing manager for a non-profit, appeared drunk coming back from his lunch break. Co-workers witnessed him stumbling down the hallway into his office and slurring his words when asked if he was okay. The afternoon’s events resulted in a concerned colleague reporting what she witnessed to Human Resources (HR).

The next morning, HR met Grayson at his office with an Employee Assistance Program pamphlet. Grayson was confused about where this was all stemming from, but after privately discussing HR’s concerns, he realized that his co-workers assumed he was drunk and reported it to HR as a policy violation. To prevent any further disciplinary action and to clarify what was really going on, Grayson choose to disclose to HR that he had ataxia, which can cause a person to appear drunk or intoxicated.

According to the National Ataxia Foundation, ataxia is not a specific disease, but rather a set of symptoms stemming from various other diseases. Ataxia can be inherited, which is most commonly called “Friedreich’s ataxia,” or caused by damage to the spinal cord and peripheral nerves, which may come from a head injury, stroke, infection, tumor, and or medication.

Like the scenario of Grayson illustrates, the symptoms of ataxia sometimes mimic those of a drunk person, which includes slurred speech, stumbling, shaking eyes, and general lack of coordination. Other limitations can include trouble swallowing, balancing, and hand use.

Now that we know what ataxia looks like, let’s look at what employees who have ataxia, like Grayson, may or may not need in the workplace.

First, let’s look at policy modifications. When a person is having a flare up and having trouble balancing or maintaining coordination, it may be beneficial for an employer to grant leave time until the flare up has passed, if the employee can’t continue to work safely during that time. Another common form of policy modification we can consider is telework or work from home, assuming the employee with ataxia can still perform work tasks during a flare up.

Aside from policy modifications, there are many assistive technologies that can help an employee with ataxia be successful in the workplace. Some products are designed to help a person maintain balance or prevent falling, such as grab bars, various mobility aids, and fall protection. For communication issues related to slurring or weakened speech, employees with ataxia may find success with speech enhancing devices, speech generating communication devices, and AAC devices.

For more information on disability disclosure in the workplace, see JAN's A to Z By Topic: Disclosure. For more information on ataxia and accommodation ideas for the workplace, contact JAN!

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marketing manager working late