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Protecting Yourself

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When I heard my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at 25, my father, a physician also living with MS, was quick to react. "Don't tell anyone," he advised. "News is a competitive business. It will be used against you." I wanted to believe otherwise, that people would react benevolently. My teacher/rabbi at Columbia, Fred Friendly, instructed otherwise. "You have to tell the truth."

My old man was right on that one.

NBC News had been courting me, promising a job after graduate school. When I told the truth to the executive reaching out to me, I watched the light in his eyes go out. I learned a hard lesson. When I negotiated with CBS News to join the Cronkite broadcast, my lips were sealed I lied on the medical forms, faked my way through the company physical, which a cadaver could pull off, and even managed to test my good eye twice.

On reflection, I thought, how sad to be going to work with the most trusted man in America on a lie, in a news organization standing for truth and openness. My friend Robert McNeil of PBS told me, "It's an honorable dishonesty." I am sure he was just lending support. That sounded an awful lot like Nixon to me.

Anyone struggling with a chronic condition, especially one invisible to others, faces that vexing question. What do we tell prospective employers, what do we owe them -- at the same time protecting ourselves. There is no easy answer. My thinking over the years certainly has evolved. I finally have my feet planted in the real world.

We are seen as damaged goods by most others. We provoke difficult questions about insurance coverage, doubts about our productivity. These are especially true in a bad economy. When a possible boss draws a caricature and sees Tiny Tim pleading for work, the odds are not good.

We may know that we would work twice as long and hard to prove our value as the chronically healthy, but we are not making the decision. I say, if your disability or illness is invisible to others, keep your mouth riveted shut. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, we are under no obligation to volunteer health information to anyone. Do not count on benevolence. If you use a cane, walker or wheelchair, obviously your options are limited. You will have to sell yourselves, knowing you probably will not hear an honest answer.

I waited a full year to finally tell the whole truth to CBS News. I went to great lengths to hide my limitations and held my breath a lot. When finally I told them I had MS, it really was too late for them to act. I had done good work and proved myself. Whatever was said behind closed doors, they left well enough alone. They told me they trusted my judgment and the ball would stay in my court.

Years later, after both of us had left CBS, Cronkite's longtime executive producer bought a few drinks, and we gossiped about the news business. Suddenly and devoid of context, he sat up and said, "You did the right thing. If you had told me you were sick, I probably would not have hired you."

Follow Richard M. Cohen on Twitter at rmcjourneyman.

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