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Multiple Sclerosis and the Workplace

Aired May 17, 2001 - 07:57   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: If you had a serious illness, would you let your boss know?

COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: That's the question facing millions of Americans. It also happens to be the question facing the president on the television show "The West Wing."

CNN's medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen tells us about your legal rights if you get sick.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's a case of art imitating life.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE WEST WING")

MARTIN SHEEN, ACTOR: I was diagnosed with a course of relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis."

COHEN: Martin Sheen's character, the president, hid the fact that he had multiple sclerosis for many years. And in a recent Harris poll, four out of 10 MS patients said they had tried to keep their diagnosis a secret -- people like actor David Lander.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LAVERNE & SHIRLEY")

DAVID LANDER, ACTOR: Oh, Shirley, I feel so guilty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COHEN: He played Squiggy on TV's "Verne and Shirley" and is now a scout for the Anaheim Angels.

LANDER: I hid it for 15 years -- and primarily because I didn't think show business would embrace the fact that I have a chronic disease known as multiple sclerosis.

COHEN (on camera): The television show and the survey bring up an important question: Can an employer fire someone just because he's sick?

(voice-over): Health law professor Wendy Mariner says, in many cases, yes. She says the Americans With Disabilities Act would probably protect an MS patient who is disabled -- for example, who had trouble walking. But many MS patients like Lander aren't actually disabled. So she says the law probably wouldn't apply and an employer could fire them.

WENDY MARINER, HEALTH LAW PROFESSOR: Employers tend to win over 90 percent of the cases that actually go to court in the federal court.

COHEN: But it often doesn't come to that. Even when someone is protected by the law, Mariner says employers sometimes fire them or decide not to hire them under one pretext or another.

MARINER: There's a great different between what the law protects in theory and what happens in the real world.

LANDER: No one is ever going to call me up and say, "Dave, we had this great part for you, but now that we know you have MS, we've decided to discriminate against you."

COHEN: So Lander says he's grateful for "The West Wing" storyline. He hopes it teaches employers that just because someone has a disease like MS doesn't mean he can't do a full day's work. And then, maybe someday, people like him won't have to lie.

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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