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Is Revealing My Parkinson’s Diagnosis Career Suicide?

Work is extra stressful with Parkinson's

When I was diagnosed with Young-Onset Parkinson’s Disease in 2011 at age 33, I was full-swing into my career as a media studies professor in California. Up until that point, I had been writing for journals, speaking at conferences, and applying for tenure-track positions. That all changed once the symptoms became too much for an ambitious young academic to bear.

I suddenly went from outspoken and involved to being someone who barely had the stamina to make it through an 8am lecture. I thought my career was over. I decided I would need to disclose my diagnosis since it was obvious that something was wrong. To my school’s credit, they sought to accommodate me by switching me to teaching online courses. I knew my dream of becoming a full faculty member was likely over, but at least I could still teach and write.

While I was able to continue working in a more limited capacity, many of my friends in the Parkinson’s community have not been so lucky. My support groups are filled with examples of people diagnosed in their 40s and 50s, and asked to retire or who mysteriously became the only victim of an unplanned layoff. This type of discrimination is illegal but proving it is extremely difficult and often not worth the stress to someone with serious health problems.

By 2015, I had sufficiently grieved the loss that came with learning I had an incurable chronic illness, and I thought it was time I tried to be more of my old self again. For me, this meant fighting back against the illness – staying fit and healthy and trying to live my best life. It might come as no surprise to those who know me that moving forward also meant using my experience in a meaningful way to help others; in other words, advocacy.

In order to be an advocate for people with Parkinson’s – to raise awareness of the illness, support efforts for a cure, help others with the illness, and help develop empathy in those without the illness – I knew I would need to go public with my diagnosis. I’m well aware that anything published on the internet is likely to be up for all time, so this bears the question: Am I sabotaging my own future by so publicly revealing my diagnosis and being so readily defined as someone having a serious illness? Will future employers search my name online and find out I have Parkinson’s? Actually, I certainly hope so. Here’s why.

I believe that revealing my illness to the world will do more good than not. While I’m worried that I might be underestimated by someone who doesn’t understand Parkinson’s, I’m not afraid to be labeled as someone with an illness – having Parkinson’s has led me to help inspire thousands of people struggling with this disease, so I wear it as a badge of honor.

Now that’s something worth revealing.

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Nick Pernisco is the Parkinson’s Warrior, a person with Parkinson’s who has dedicated his life to helping others with Parkinson’s. Get the Parkinson’s Warrior book here. Join the discussion on Facebook.

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