Managing Around a Hidden Disability

Posted October 29, 2012

Jenn Ford carries an invisible burden: A disability that no one can see. As a business manager for Colorado Permanente Medical Group, an affiliate of Kaiser Permanente, her job is demanding, to say the least. Ford oversees many facets of the four medical groups she is responsible for, including business needs, staffing requests and payment issues.

At the same time, she is dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic back pain, which she acquired while serving in the military in the 1990s. She was also diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disorder, last year.

Jenn Ford

Ford, who has six children, a doctorate degree and works full-time in Aurora, Col., says she has made it her personal mission to do a great job for Kaiser. “I have a very extreme work ethic. I’m constantly available for my coworkers and physicians. I tend to go above and beyond,” she says.

Her colleagues agree. “Jenn is relentless at finding solutions to tough problems, and is always willing to do whatever it takes,” says Dr. William Marsh, senior vice president of business operations and service at Colorado Permanente Medical Group. “She is knowledgeable, communicates honestly and frankly, challenges the status quo, and always seeks the best for our members.”

Not Always Easy

Millions of Americans have hidden disabilities like epilepsy, depression and brain injuries. And like Ford, many of them are successfully working through their disabilities on a daily basis. The key to her success, Ford says, is to let her ability shine through, and not stopping to “wallow” in her disability.

Sometimes the road isn’t always smooth. Ford frequently has bouts of anxiety and panic as the result of PTSD, especially when in large groups. She also has flare-ups of lupus. “There are periods of time where I’m so fatigued and I can’t get up, my joints hurt so bad,” she says. She also can’t sit or stand for too long because of her back pain, but thankfully, can walk around in her office when she needs to.

When Ford’s illnesses keep her from going into the office, she has the support from Kaiser to work from home. “Kaiser is a great organization and is very accepting. I’ve not worked for a company that has been as accepting and values people no matter where they come from, or who they are. We value everyone,” says Ford. “That is so important because it allows us to do great things.”

In fact, Kaiser is the first company where Ford says she felt comfortable enough to disclose all of her hidden disabilities. She says workers with disabilities who are weighing whether or not to disclose their conditions should consider their company’s culture; a supportive work culture is key, she says. “The most important thing is to be able to feel like you can trust those at work,” she adds.

For those seeking jobs, Ford admits it’s not easy. Her advice: Let your confidence in your ability to do the job guide you. “So many people are so fearful they’re going to be judged by their disability, it ends up coming across in how they market themselves,” says Ford. “It’s all up to you to say to yourself, ‘Yeah, I have this disability I deal with, but so what? I’m still a better candidate.’”

Photo: Jenn Ford, Business Manager, Kaiser Permanente