While workers with disabilities are landing jobs at record rates, they continue to deal with unique challenges, such as physical barriers and social stigmas associated with their condition, that can make work more difficult.
In March 2022, federal data revealed that employees with a disability were more than twice as likely as those with no disability to have requested a change in their workplace to better perform their job—such as asking for new or modified equipment or changes in work tasks or schedule.
But these requests aren't always fulfilled.
Kara Yarnot, vice president of strategic consulting services at recruitment agency HireClix in Gloucester, Mass., has lived with three disabilities for more than a decade. She spoke with SHRM Online about the challenges she's faced as a worker with disabilities and how past employers could have been more empathetic to her needs. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
SHRM Online: You've been very open about living with multiple disabilities. Would you mind talking about each of those disabilities?
Yarnot: I live with three different disabilities. The first is chronic migraines. Those started just as my professional career began. Three months into my first job out of college, I found out that I had migraines. And those have plagued me ever since.
It has been an up and down experience—mostly down. I've had to manage migraines in every phase of my career, even when traveling and during speaking engagements.
Next, I had an extremely rare form of eye cancer that I was diagnosed with on New Year's Eve in 2008. I had a type of radiation treatment where radiation was implanted into a contact lens-like device. Then doctors took the radiation implant out and hoped the tumor shrinks, which I was extremely lucky because the tumor did not spread.
But I had very bizarre side effects from the radiation; it caused me to slowly lose vision in that eye. And then I got glaucoma, another strange side effect from my radiation. I slowly lost my central vision; it's like I had a black spot in my central vision. I also had floaters, which looked like ants running across my vision. I had a blind, painful eye.
I decided to have the eye removed in January 2011. I didn't realize how much pain I was in until I had the eye removed. And then I had a prosthetic eye created.
Lastly, I'm deaf in one ear. This one began about six or seven years ago. One day, I woke up with a massive vertigo attack. I was supposed to be on plane to New York that day. I was diagnosed with Ménière's disease, which is a balance disorder that causes vertigo, ringing in the ear and hearing loss. I eventually lost hearing in one ear. I can only hear 20 percent out of that ear without a hearing aid.
SHRM Online: How have your disabilities impacted your time in the workplace?
Yarnot: I spent the first five or six years hiding my migraines [at work] until I found a supportive manager. There would be instances where I'd be in bathroom vomiting in pain due to the migraines. I had multiple instances where I had to have someone pick me up from work because I couldn't drive home. My friend had to drive me with a leather jacket over my head because I needed darkness.
I've hidden under my desk. I've locked myself in dark conference rooms to hide myself from people. I've gone out to my car in parking lots because it's cold and silent there, which can help alleviate the pain. I've had to walk out of meetings that I was facilitating because I couldn't function. Those have been some of my lowest points.
With only one eye, I have no depth perception. I encourage people to walk around with an eye patch—that's what it's like. The world is flat to me. You have light and shadows to help your brain figure out where things are. But darkness is a problem. I will occasionally walk into walls. I will run ahead of everyone to get in a conference room to get a good spot where I can see. There are only a few places where I'm comfortable sitting.
I have challenges in an open-office environment. Anything that is low-light is difficult. If we turn lights off to see a presentation, that's difficult. Or an outdoor evening reception where the lights are down. Recently, I literally couldn't see where I was going during an outdoor event, so I had to hold onto the back of my CEO to navigate. When I have public speaking engagements, I ask the organizers to mark the edge of the stage with bright tape so I don't accidentally fall off the front of the stage.
My deafness in one ear is the most manageable of my disabilities because my hearing aid helps. But in an open office plan, it is a challenge to go to the workplace and work because there is noise all around me. I also have difficulty hearing in very loud environments like trade shows and restaurants. I spend some time in those environments because of my role. I often turn my good ear to the person I'm speaking with to ensure I hear them clearly.
SHRM Online: Have you dealt with any negative experiences, such as discrimination, due to your disabilities? Or have your managers always been supportive?
Yarnot: I would say I felt more discriminated at times with my chronic migraines.
I can think of two instances where I actively raised my hand for assignments and I was told "no" because I was asking for too many accommodations, like limiting my travel or working from home, which were perceived as limiting my availability for meetings or events.
With migraines, you go through phases where symptoms are manageable, but sometimes they are not. They did not want me to leave for an afternoon to rest. Before remote work was a thing, I needed to work from home or catch up with work on evenings. With two [of my previous] employers, those opportunities were not present.
They said that they don't know if I would always be available to take calls. I was eventually passed over for a promotion—one that I thought I deserved. I've never had to be coached for bad performance. I would say indirectly those migraines led to not receiving certain promotions.
SHRM Online: Federal data recently revealed that workers with disabilities are landing jobs at record numbers, and many experts in this space credit the rise of remote work. Has remote work helped you in any way?
Yarnot: Remote work has certainly helped. I've been a home-office worker for about a decade. It helps because I have a bright home office so I can see well. I also have an extra-large monitor. I can control room temperature, lighting and sound in the room.
For the chronic migraines, I know where my medicines are at home. I don't forget to take them because they are here. For me personally, that helps tremendously. I can work when I am at my best. I can nap in afternoon and work at evening, or work in the morning. That has been a game-changer for me and for a lot of other workers who have disabilities.
I think companies are more open to remote work. It has created more opportunities for people with disabilities. I think of folks with mobility disabilities not having to worry about stress and strain of physically traveling to an office. With me, driving at night was an issue. I'd have to leave midafternoon when I worked in an office so I get home before it gets dark.
There's more opportunity with remote work. I think employers have become more inclusive, more empathetic. Times have changed, and employers have thought about this differently. The data shows that those are more successful businesses. We are making small strides, but strides in right direction.
SHRM Online: How can companies adapt their recruiting process or remove roadblocks for job seekers with disabilities? Is there something they can do as early as the interview process?
Yarnot: I think one of the things I'd like to see companies do is be more transparent in the interview process upfront. How many interviews will there be? Where will they take place? What is the style and approach? If it is a video interview, how many people will I be talking to? If I need an accommodation, who do I ask for it?
If I have a hearing impediment, can I ask for closed captions in advance? That is so I don't have to ask in the flow of the interview itself. If you know it's a video interview, and I'm neurodivergent, I can be prepared and practice my eye contact in advance. The more info workers with disabilities have, the better they can prepare.
Some recruiters prepare people and give them that information in advance. That alone gives people time to prepare and learn how to request an accommodation. That makes a huge difference for us in the disability community.
Many companies are on the right track to being more inclusive. For example, many have an employee resource group for workers with disabilities. I encourage company leaders to talk to people in those groups. What should we be doing to recruit more people with disabilities? What outreach should we be doing?
Work with local disability organizations to do job training or internship programs. These actions make people with disabilities more comfortable. Talk about and share what you're doing in the disability community. Connecting with workers with disabilities helps.