Testing for drugs poses big problem for many epileptics. Could label them as illegal drug users and add to discrimination
Washington — There is a silent minority of federal workers who stand to lose a great deal when President Reagan's drug-testing program is implemented in coming months. These are the civil servants, bureaucrats, and policy-makers who take daily medication to treat epilepsy.
For them, the problem of drug testing is twofold: Not only are they highly likely to be wrongfully labeled as illicit drug users, but the tests will force many to reveal for the first time to employers, supervisors, and co-workers that they have epilepsy.
The concern is that societal prejudices and fears about epilepsy remain so strong that jobs and opportunities will be lost, and careers will be short-circuited or ruined.
``Despite the fact that medical treatment makes it possible for the vast majority of people with epilepsy to gain complete control of their seizures, they continue to face employers who do not wish to hire them because of an unreasoned fear of their condition,'' says Barbara Elkin, director of legal advocacy at the Epilepsy Foundation of America.
Ms. Elkin notes, ``The foundation is concerned that without proper regulation, drug testing may place many people with epilepsy at risk of discrimination by forcing them to unnecessarily disclose medical conditions that have no relationship to their ability to work.''
Reagan administration officials say they are sensitive to the possible impact of drug tests on the privacy of people with medical conditions.
Officials emphasize that President Reagan's executive order on drug testing specifically requires establishment of regulations to safeguard the ``confidentiality of test results and related medical and rehabilitation records.''
But the administration has not yet addressed the tougher issue of whether people with epilepsy can reasonably expect that their medical condition will remain totally private from their supervisors.
As drug testing becomes more prevalent in both government and the private sector, people with epilepsy and other medical conditions will increasingly be required as a condition of employment to provide details of their lives that many would prefer to keep private.
Unemployment among people with epilepsy is two to three times the national average, according to the foundation.
Estimates are that 2.4 million Americans are currently being treated for epilepsy.
``People with epilepsy are often faced with a difficult choice in filling out job applications,'' says Richard Pollack, a writer and member of the Epilepsy Foundation.
``If they put epilepsy on their application,'' he says, ``there is a strong probability that they will be turned down without any consideration of their ability to perform the job.''
``If they do not reveal their epilepsy on the application they face the possibility of being fired for application falsification if their condition is discovered, again regardless of ability,'' Mr. Pollack warns.
A related concern, Pollack says, is that fear of drug testing may cause some individuals who anticipate being tested on the job to stop taking their medication.
The foundation has taken no stand either pro or con on the drug-test issue.
But foundation officials say that if broad drug screening programs are deemed necessary, anti-discrimination laws should be beefed up and enforced uniformly across the country.
``In an ideal world the employee could go to the employer and say I have epilepsy and it would be no big deal -- that is in the ideal world,'' Elkin says. She stresses, ``That is what we are working toward.''