She was my closest friend in the office, yet a constant tormenter with her furious tapping on that despicable computer keyboard. I was too embarrassed to tell her why I had to wear the headphones that blasted music over the trigger sound she made when I sat down to work each day; I suspected she and the others just thought I was crazy.
Such is the misophonic’s plight.
Every time, it seems, that we step into a place of employment, we are essentially signing up for patrol in a very dangerous sonic minefield. Sure, the “reasonable accommodation” clause of the Americans with Disabilities Act technically protects misophonia sufferers from workplace discrimination, but the law is black and white, and disability, particularly when it is both rare and invisible, is decidedly gray.
Fortunately, there are people like Jan Johnston-Tyler around that understand and can help. Ms. Johnston-Tyler is a successful Silicon Valley tech refugee with a master’s in counseling and specialization in career placement. In 2007, she founded EvoLibri, a Santa Clara, Calif., company that provides job coaching and placement services to people with hidden disabilities like misophonia.
Ms. Johnston-Tyler says she has dealt with all types of situations. “I’ve seen plenty of workers with a hidden disability who were simply in the wrong company (or with the wrong manager), who moved to a new job and were fine,” she says. “Others may need to tweak -- or even change -- their careers, because the nature of the job ‘hits’ on the disability.”
When it comes to managing misophonia in your current work setting, Ms. Johnston-Tyler has several suggestions. First, she says, requests for accommodations to help avoid exposure to trigger sounds should be kept brief and, if possible, leavened with humor: Something, she says, along the lines of:
“Hey, I wanted to let you know that I have this thing called misophonia -- which sometimes is like having to listen to screeching nails on a chalkboard all day long. What works best for me is to wear headphones or ear plugs to screen the noise -- I’ll bring my own pair, so there’s nothing you need to do, but wanted to let you know. Also, I have a rear-view mirror I’ll hang in my cube so I can see if someone is trying to get my attention. Would that be okay?”
This slant, says Ms. Johnston-Tyler, lets employers know that you have come up with a solution that doesn’t require them to do anything more than say, “Yes.” She advises the same unapologetic, direct approach, tempered with humor, with co-workers and colleagues.
As far as placing a request to work from home either informally, or formally, through the “reasonable accommodation” clause of the ADA, Ms. Johnston says that before doing so, it’s important to be certain that you can perform your particular job from home as well as, or better than the employees in the office. “There are lots of jobs that just don’t work as work-at-home jobs,” she says, “and the way you will stay in contact with the office (phone, video conferences and email) may be even more excruciating.”
If you are interested in submitting a formal ADA-protected work-at-home request, which usually requires a doctor’s note, then Ms. Johnston advises seeking a face-to-face meeting with your manager/supervisor to disclose that you suffer from misophonia and then following up with an email summarizing the discussion and outcome (which you should retain as proof of the meeting).
If you do get the go ahead to work from home and want to avoid the sometimes subtle penalties attached, like lack of raises or promotions, Ms. Johnston-Tyler recommends staying in close touch with your supervisor and asking questions like, “What do you want me to work on over the next year?” and “How can I get promoted to the next level?”
When applying for a new job, Ms. Johnston-Tyler advises not disclosing you have misophonia until your job duties put you in sonic “harms way.” “I’m lactose-intolerant,” she says, “but no one needs to know that unless I’m applying for a job as a cheese taster.”
Overall, Ms. Johnston-Tyler suggests that you first experiment at home with different ways of managing trigger sounds, and then slowly introduce the methods that work best for you at your place of employment.
“I would also recommend making sure you take good care of yourself in other domains -- doing things you love, exercising, sleeping, and eating well -- all keep you in a better place overall,” she says, “And find specialists that ‘get’ you -- don’t settle for the prattling of people who think you are damaged -- you’re not. You have a beautiful and unique brain, and God has a twisted sense of humor.”
Although I no longer work in the office with my keyboard tapping tormenter, I’m still friends with her. I told her one day that I suffer from misophonia and that that was why I had been sealed up in my headphones for all those years. I asked her what she had thought about my behavior then.
She said she hadn’t given it much thought.