Navigating the Disability Employment Gap: Inside Info from a Visually Impaired Job Coach

In the U.S., only 42% of working-age individuals with visual disabilities are employed – and many are underemployed in low-wage jobs. And that’s just one example of what’s known as the disability employment gap.

Marisol Carmona has a unique perspective on disability employment: as a social worker with deep background in disability awareness training, she not only supports the Career Launch @ Perkins program, she also recently went through her own job search before landing a position as a Job Developer and Instructor at The IRIS Network in Portland, Maine. Another relevant detail: she’s visually impaired.

Used with Permission from Perkins School for the Blind. Originally published as Navigating the Disability Employment Gap: Inside Info from a Visually Impaired Job Coach by Marisol Carmona.

Carmona understands the barriers to employment for people with disabilities – from inaccessibility and improper accommodations to the unintended biases that keep employers from seeing the potential in eager, qualified candidates – because she’s been there.

Here, she offers some insight that can help job seekers and prospective employers overcome those barriers – and start narrowing that gap.

Advice for job seekers: build your skills – and your network

In her current role at IRIS, Carmona partners with clients to strengthen job skills – from interviewing and crafting resumes to navigating social situations in the workplace and requesting accommodations – with the goal of getting them to work.

“In many cases, it’s evident that somewhere along their journey, my clients weren’t given an equal chance to learn or interact or play on equal ground with their peers, so, initially, there are gaps,” she said. “When we meet, we work together to identify and fill in those gaps so that they’re up to speed. No two clients look alike – some want part-time, some want to dive right into full-time – but everyone wants to work. So we meet them where they are and make it happen.”

When asked for what advice she’d give job seekers, Carmona’s answer was immediate: “Network, network, network! All of the jobs I’ve gotten were through connections or being in the right place at the right time.”

“Networking is hard – it’s time-consuming and energy-consuming, and it may not come naturally,” she said. “It’s one of the areas where people can use the most support with job development – it’s really an undervalued skill! Because, while we can teach you all about creating a compelling resume and cover letter and polishing your interview skills, in the end, you have to put yourself out there – that’s really where the opportunities are going to come from.”

But where to begin? “If a candidate has job experience, they can reach out to previous employers to get contacts and referrals,” Carmona recommended. “And if they’re starting from scratch, they can use their VR counselor as a resource. Tap into local blindness organizations and support organizations to see if they have contacts. Meet with other people who are blind and working or looking for work – it’ll help give you an inside perspective on what it’s like out there.”

Advice for employers: be open to the conversation

Another aspect of Carmona’s job is working with prospective employers, “pitching” her clients and gauging the employer’s openness to hiring someone who is blind.

“I often start out by asking if they’d consider an informational interview,” she said. “It’s a way for them to get to know the candidate and understand the potential beyond their disability. And my client gets additional experience interviewing.”

The good news? The majority of employers Carmona speaks to are willing to listen. “I haven’t had that one awful call or terrible conversation with any employer,” she said. “Not all are ready, but when someone says, ‘Hmmmm, I want to know more,’ it gives me confidence that they’re open to it, and that’s my goal.”

“I was actually able to place my first client within a month on the job,” she noted. “And now, that employer is open to working with another one of my clients. Every case is different, but just getting someone to say, ‘Let’s talk!’ is a win.”

“Overall, that’s what’s really missing in the workforce,” Carmona said, “The willingness to learn and be open to the possibilities! It can make a huge difference.”

Advice for everyone: get comfortable with being uncomfortable

In the early part of her career, Carmona worked as an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Specialist in the U.S Department of the Army.

“My job with the federal government fueled my passion for my current work,” she said. “I led disability etiquette and awareness training, which was a great opportunity to challenge and expose assumptions that people didn’t even realize they had. It was also a way to set up a safe forum for people to ask questions that they may not have felt comfortable asking otherwise: Will accommodations for a blind employee cost money? Do blind people need someone with them at all times to do their job? or Will my other colleagues have to take on more if I hire someone who is blind?”

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a hot topic – and a significant goal – right now for many organizations. But often, disability gets left out of that conversation.

“Part of what drives low presence of disability in DEI is probably discomfort,” Carmona said. “And people might feel like it’s overwhelming – within the scope of disability, there is so much nuance. Even within the same disability, no two people are alike.”

But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean the topic can be dismissed. Carmona said, “It might be complex, but if more people would humble themselves and accept that there’s learning to do about disability – and get comfortable with being uncomfortable – there would be room for people to ask questions and have conversations that aren’t currently happening. And eventually, as people know more, they’ll do better.”

Marisol Carmona is a a Job Developer and Instructor at The IRIS Network. She also serves as a coach and counselor for Career Launch @ Perkins, an innovative training and career services program helping blind and visually impaired young adults land career-track jobs. She works with participants on the social and emotional aspects of transitioning to the world of employment.

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