Having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can create unique challenges in daily life, including affecting your job. While the Social Security Administration (SSA) does not currently list IBS on its list of common disability impairments, you may still be eligible for disability status if you prove your condition is severe enough to impair work.

According to the 2015 “Life with IBS” survey, Americans with IBS reported missing out on an average 1.5 days a month of school or work due to their symptoms. Respondents stated their productivity was also significantly impacted an additional 8 days a month.

Both digestive symptoms and comorbidities like chronic pain and depression — IBS hallmark symptoms — can have a negative impact on your energy, focus, and physical ability. People with IBS deserve a work environment and schedule they can manage without compromising their health. Accommodations may be necessary for this to happen.

Keep reading to find out how applying for disability works when you have IBS and how to let your employer know if you need special accommodations to help you navigate the workday.

When evaluating eligibility according to SSA policy, let’s first distinguish between IBS and inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). The latter is currently represented on the SSA disability evaluation listing, while IBS is not.

The term IBS refers to conditions that cause uncomfortable digestive symptoms. These may include:

While these symptoms can be very difficult, they don’t typically cause lasting damage to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

However, inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, do have the potential to cause lasting damage.

Serious effects of these conditions may include infection or the need for alternate nutrition methods instead of eating by mouth. Because of such lasting effects, IBD’s harm to the digestive system may result in a severe impairment or inability to work.

This isn’t to suggest IBS cannot also cause serious impairment — it absolutely can — but to explain the SSA reasoning behind why IBD is listed and IBS is not.

People with IBS may also have other, co-occurring conditions that make their symptoms worse. These potential mental and physical health issues can further complicate your IBS, and may make it difficult, if not impossible, to work.

In particular, those with IBS may also deal with:

People with IBS often also have other serious medical conditions, which may qualify them for disability. Examples include:

To receive protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you must have a disability (physical or mental) that severely limits your ability to engage in major life activities.

Here’s examples of how those activities are defined:

  • breathing
  • caring for yourself
  • hearing
  • learning
  • performing manual tasks
  • seeing
  • speaking
  • walking
  • working

If your disability is significant enough to impair you from working, the ADA calls this a “substantial impairment.” Minor impairments are not protected.

Changes from the 2008 ADA Amendment

The 2008 amendment to the ADA expanded the definition of “major life activities” by creating two non-exhaustive lists. These changes sought to protect a broader spectrum of people with disabilities from discrimination.

The updated lists consist of two main categories for possible impairments that may make someone eligible for disability status:

  • impairment to major activities already recognized by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), such as walking, and others not formally recognized, such as reading and communicating
  • impairment to major bodily functions, including the immune, digestive, reproductive systems, and more
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The SSA takes into account individual health experiences when reviewing disability claims. However, there is overlap with the impairment scale as laid out by the ADA. To qualify through SSA, your disability must:

  • be so medically severe that you cannot work
  • be so severe that you cannot perform or adjust to other work
  • be so severe that you cannot perform the past several jobs for which you have been employed

Ultimately, to qualify for disability under the SSA, you must provide medical evidence that your condition (or conditions) seriously impairs your ability to perform the job for which you have trained or been educated toward.

You can apply in-person or online for disability benefits via the SSA. Be aware that the process requires quite a bit of paperwork and filing, regardless of the application method you choose.

If applying online, you will first be asked to create a “my Social Security” account. You may need identifying documents, such as a W-2 or tax forms, as well as your cell phone and a credit card to confirm your identity.

Some of the major information you’ll be asked to submit to apply for disability benefits includes:

  • employer details for the present and prior two years
  • an alternate contact (friend or relative) who is aware of your medical conditions who can help you with your claim
  • a comprehensive list of your medical conditions
  • comprehensive listing of your doctors, healthcare professionals, and hospitals and clinics you are seen at (this includes names, addresses, phone numbers, patient identification numbers, and examinations or treatments you’ve undergone)
  • listing of your medications, medical tests, and other relevant medical information
  • your job history as it relates to how you are unable to work at this time

You will also need to provide banking information in your application. While this initially may seem unusual, your bank information allows any potential disability benefits to be deposited directly into your account.

Don’t delay!

The Social Security Administration stresses the importance of not delaying your application for disability benefits just because you may not have certain documents on hand right now (such as a birth certificate). The SSA can help you locate and obtain these documents during your application process.

You will also likely be asked to bring some documents in-person to your nearest Social Security office.

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If your disability application is rejected, you have the right to appeal the decision within 60 days. You can submit your appeal online.

During the appeals process, you can upload additional supporting documents, such as medical reports or written statements. This allows you to address the reasons your application was initially denied, and offer any new, relevant changes to your medical history that could strengthen your appeal.

Some people may choose to hire an attorney to help them make a disability appeal. If you’re unable to financially secure legal or professional assistance, contact your local Social Security office. They will supply you with a list of service organizations that may be able to help with your appeal at low to no cost. These include legal aid societies, law schools, or local bar associations.

Under the ADA, employers should be able to provide reasonable accommodations to help an employee with a disability perform their job. As the ADA states, “The duty to provide reasonable accommodation is a fundamental statutory requirement because of the nature of discrimination faced by individuals with disabilities.”

Reasonable accommodations may include:

  • providing modifying equipment or devices, such as a special keyboard or desk
  • modifying a work schedule, including to part time (if possible)
  • re-assigning a person to a vacant position
  • increasing workplace accessibility

Reasonable accommodations should not impose “undue hardship” on the employer, defined by the ADA as requiring “significant difficulty or expense.” The accommodation process requires a balance be reached between employee and employer rights.

Asking for additional accommodations of your employer can be a difficult ask, especially because IBS can be a sensitive topic to disclose. However, it’s important to remember that you are protected under the ADA when it comes to asking for an accommodation.

Even if the SSA has denied your claim, you can still ask for accommodations from your employer.

You have two possible approaches when making an accommodation request: in person, or in writing.

Some people prefer to make their request in writing so they have a physical record of their request. If possible, submitting both a written request and meeting with your employer in-person may be ideal.

Potential accommodations that could benefit you include:

  • establishing a work-from-home or hybrid schedule option, if possible
  • assigning a workspace that has easy access to the restroom
  • allowing for more frequent work or bathroom breaks
  • providing a quiet space for relaxation

Seeking further guidance

If you are uncertain of how to ask for accommodations or have further questions on potential accommodations for those with IBS, one useful resource is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). This network provides free and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations.

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Because IBS is not on the SSA’s list of impairments, it may be more difficult to obtain disability claim approval. However, you can still apply and are eligible for approval if your condition significantly impairs your ability to work.

The claims process can be started online or in person, and requires substantial documentation of your condition and its impact on your life. You can appeal a denied claim within 60 days.

Even if SSA denies your claim, you still have the right to ask your employer for reasonable accommodations that could help you work more comfortably and safely.