Workspace adaptations for people with multiple sclerosis (MS)

AbilityNet Assessor Consultant James Butlin offers tips for adjusting your environment if you’re living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in this guest blog. 

A picture of a laptop on  laptop stand on a desk. The chair has ergonomic support.Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system. It affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. MS is a lifelong condition, usually diagnosed when people are in their 20s and 30s, but symptoms can be present much earlier than this and it can develop at any age. 

Symptoms for those with MS can affect people differently and in varying levels of severity. 

Common symptoms are fatigue, problems with balance and coordination, numbness or tingling in limbs, muscle stiffness and spasms, cognitive difficulties, vision problems, and difficulties with bladder control. 

People with MS can benefit from adjustments to their home and working spaces to continue living independently and with more freedom. 

1. Adapting your working environment, and specialist equipment

Box of Dragon NaturallySpeaking softwareCommon symptoms for MS include pins and needles and numbness. This can affect the ability to type for long periods and using the mouse. Difficulties with vision can mean looking at the screen can be an issue. Useful adjustments include the use of dictation and/or text-to-speech software where information can be related vocally and then read out loud. 

There are in-built adjustments that can be used within Apple and Microsoft’s accessibility features or software such as Dragon Naturally-Speaking whcih can provide more flexibility and additional features where in-built dictation isn’t enough. Adjustments to the use of the mouse and keyboard can provide adjustments where symptoms are less severe. 

Transporting equipment may be an issue where balance is affected. 

Rolling backpacks provide flexibility where the user may wish to carry their items most of the time, but on days when they are having difficulties, they can be pulled along.

2. Smarter working – your rights

Home desk. 3pm shown on the desktop of the computerFlexible working is a key requirement for people living with MS. People living with the condition will know best how it affects them and that certain times of the day that are better for working, for example. 

Employers are expected to make reasonable adjustments to ensure their employees can work and this is covered under the Equality Act 2010. 

Read our Expert Guide to creating a disability-friendly workplace 

People with MS would be considered as disabled and automatically meet the disability definition with this condition (HIV and cancer also fall under these automatic definitions).

People with MS can be affected by noise, heat, sunlight and other distractions. These can affect the frequency of spasms, numbness, tingling and other symptoms. People with MS can also be more fatigued at different times of the day, and with this can come an increase in symptoms. 

Flexible working such as earlier hours, fewer hours, a fixed desk away from heat sources (windows in Summer) or away from a light source (directly under lighting can affect visual disturbances).

AbilityNet provides Workplace Assessments to recommend suitable adjustments

3. Managing fatigue as a result of living with MS 

Many people with MS will need to adjust their pace of work, and may need more regular breaks. 

Depending on the job role, employees and employers may be able to come to an agreement to allow home working and this can often suit people better due to a higher level of flexibility in working locations and hours with a greater degree of control over the environment.

People with MS may also be unable to work for multiple days in a row. Energy levels are likely to be sustained for a couple of days, but it may not be possible to keep these energy levels going for a full working week.

Apps and websites can be useful to provide reminders to get moving and prevent muscle stiffness. Equipment can only work to an extent, but the body wants to move. There are some useful solutions to break your flow and get up:

Apps to encourage regular breaks

  • The Pomodoro Technique is a study/work practise that traditionally says to work for 25 minutes at a time, with a short break in between and a longer break after 4 cycles (or pomodoros – the Italian for tomato).
  • Big Stretch Reminder is a free break reminder tool that can be installed onto Windows computers. It prompts the user to take regular breaks with varying options on how intrusive the messages are. 
  • Stretchly is another app that reminds you to take a break when working with your computer. This is customisable and can provide instructions on what to do with your breaks, whether it takes up the full screen and how often breaks occur.

The use of technology keeps many people working for much longer and makes life easier. AbilityNet has been encouraging the use of technology with the TechShare Pro and Tech4Good events. 

4. Ergonomic adjustments for Ataxia, spasticity and spasms

A keyboard with large print keysOne common symptom of MS is ataxia (an umbrella term for a group of neurological disorders that affects balance, coordination and speech). 

Alongside this may be spasticity of limbs (certain muscles become stiff, heavy and it can be difficult to move), and spasms (sudden stiffening of a muscle causing a limb to kick out or jerk towards the body). These can all be difficult to deal with and can make everyday tasks frustrating. 

Adjustments to the keyboard can help including FilterKeys which can help if users find themselves holding keys down for too long or pressing keys accidentally. Keyboards with larger keys can also help as well as ones with more visible keys, as these can be useful for those with visual disturbances including double vision.

Those with MS may wish to explore mouse settings to slow down the mouse pointers where they find the sensitivity frustrating when spasms occur.  

5. Seating adaptations for people living with MS

Seating adjustments may be required for those with weakness, walking difficulties, and muscle stiffness. 

Some with MS will be using a wheelchair to get around and may need to transfer into an ergonomic chair to work. Considerations to include will be the ability to keep the chair steady move around in this easily and maintain good balance. 

Other adjustments to explore would be to ensure that arms on chairs are sturdy to ensure the user can keep their balance and lower themselves in easily.