Can a Phone Line Make Your Career?
by Chris Lombardi
Hearing Denise Veazey, Linda Tucker, and Karen Jackson describe their schedules is exhausting—no matter how much of a capable, Type A person you might consider yourself.
"I'm up at 6:00 AM," Veazey said, "and I'm on the go until 8:00 PM." When she's not on the phone with her customers at Mary Kay Cosmetics, she's working on her first novel, getting her essential hours of exercise, or helping organize Women Against MS events with the Society's Mid South Chapter—all from her wheelchair.
Linda Tucker's work also has her on the phone for much of the day, talking to people all over Tennessee about long-term care insurance. "I'm a living, breathing example of why that's important," she said. The slow progressive course of Tucker's MS has left her quadriplegic.
Karen Jackson works five days a week for a surgeon. Three days she's at the office in Washington, DC, answering calls and consulting with the doctor; two days she's at home in Fort Washington, Maryland, where she can work as her MS fatigue allows.
While all three of these women are special, they're far from unique. People with disabilities—including many with MS—are finding ways to keep working, or start working again, by telecommuting, or doing "telework." Technology, whether it's the Internet or an old-fashioned telephone, helps create the most accessible office of all.
A "reasonable accommodation"
Telecommuting is recognized as a possible "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The federal government encourages it for people with disabilities, most recently through its "New Freedom Initiative." Still, getting started isn't as simple as it sounds.
What is often most successful is persuading your current employer to offer a schedule like the one Karen Jackson has: part on site, part from home.
"Most employers will allow a person to work at home at least one day a week—especially if the person has already demonstrated themselves as a valued employee," said Steve Nissen, director of Operation Job Match at the Society's National Capital Chapter.
Nissen, who directed a special telework initiative from 1997-2002, has found that some fields are more conducive to working from home than others: "Web design, computer programming, college and university counseling, writing, editing, and even teaching at the college level, where the prep work can be done at home, are all acceptable choices."
"We're moving rapidly toward a more flexible workplace for all employees," said Jane Anderson of the Midwest Institute for Telecommuting Education (MITE) in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The bridge to the right job
Operation Job Match and MITE both work with employers to help create placement options. For example, Nissen found work for former floor nurses, whose MS-related fatigue made those jobs impossible, with hospitals that needed help processing radiology reports. Anderson's agency worked with the United Way of Minnesota to develop its "First Call for Help" hotline. All calls are answered by people with disabilities from their own homes.
Cutting out the commute
In late 2003 Karen Jackson was going through some major transitions. Coaching had become too fatiguing and Jackson realized that she had to make a change. A surgeon she knew from her athletic work needed some help. Today, Karen takes dictation, schedules surgeries, and makes sure each procedure is "pre-authorized" by the patient's insurance. Her experience negotiating with insurance companies on her own behalf, she said, "certainly didn't hurt."
On Thursdays and Fridays, when Jackson works from home, she doesn't have the fatiguing effect of a commute in the nation's capital. "I leave my office at 5:00 PM and sit in traffic. At home, I'm often still at the computer at 7:30 PM and I get a lot more done."
"This increased productivity is quite common among teleworkers with MS," said Kim Cordingly, of the national Job Accommodation Network (JAN). Cordingly is currently studying women with MS in "alternative employment" for her doctoral dissertation. "These women can be so much more productive if they eliminate that commute," she said.
Start slowly and carefully
Is telework right for you? Cordingly and Nissen both emphasize a careful start. You can go directly to agencies like JAN (800-526-7234, http://www.jan.wvu.edu/), or your local and state employment and vocational rehabilitation agencies. "But you can't make an immediate switch," Nissen said. "You need to look at yourself and see what you have to offer, not just what you need."
What not to do, both agree, is to jump on any random offer that promises riches for at-home work. Many are scams. They exploit workers, often using them and their computers to send borderline-illegal bulk e-mail (also known as "spam").
How will you know?
"Just. Be. Informed," Nissen emphasized. "If an employer wants any money up front, say no. Make sure you're on the payroll of an actual company." Check with the national Better Business Bureau, www.bbb.org, to make sure. And remember, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Telework and benefits
Denise Veazey, the Mary Kay associate, is acutely aware of the need for benefits planning. Veazey was once a specialist in private disability insurance before she started having paresthesia in her arms, and was diagnosed with progressive MS.
Veazey moved back to her hometown in Tennessee, where she knew people and where her benefits, from SSDI and from the private disability insurance she'd purchased, would stretch further. When she wanted to return to work, she knew she would still need Medicare and other support. Mary Kay Cosmetics, with its flexible schedules, allows her to work "about three hours a day" and earn a significant income, without exceeding the maximum allowed under Social Security's "work incentives"—currently $829 a month.
Karen Jackson is also careful to do the same: "I'm actually part time. I don't put in more than 64 hours in a pay period," she said.
Nissen, Anderson, and Cordingly all emphasize the crucial nature of benefits planning. Understanding the eligibility rules is important, even if you're not receiving SSDI or Medicare and are relying on your job's disability insurance or are hoping to start a business. Most private insurance companies take their guidance on eligibility from the Social Security Administration's rules.
|Chris Lombardi is a regular contributor to InsideMS.|
This article originally appeared in the February-March 2006 issue of InsideMS.
© 2007 National MS Society. All rights reserved.