Grads with disabilities find a niche in engineering and IT
“Although my disability is a part of who I am, it is not who I am”
– Jacqueline Yee, New York Life
“Employers look for students who are highly motivated and can interact with all kinds of people” – John Macko, director, NTID Center on Employment
By Souad Dajani
'Employees with disabilities are not immune to the downturn,” says Virginia Stern, director of the Project on Science, Technology and Disability, EntryPoint! and other programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, www.aaas.org) in Washington, DC. “But we have great applicants to our internship program, and we’re sure that many of them will find top positions.”
Stern has seen that internships, long regarded as invaluable tickets to good job opportunities, are not as widely available this year for students with or without disabilities. Like any recent grad entering the workforce, students with disabilities have to contend with competition over jobs and shrinking options in some sectors, along with the unique challenges of their disabilities.
But despite gloomy economic forecasts, long-term job prospects for recent grads with disabilities appear to be improving. Career counseling programs at colleges and universities are more likely to offer resources tailored specifically to the disabled. Prominent organizations and programs around the country partner with private and public counterparts to train and place their best and brightest students on a path to rewarding careers in their chosen field.
Specialized programs help techies with disabilities launch promising careers
The Project on Science, Technology and Disability at the AAAS is well known for training and placing students with disabilities on the path to rewarding tech careers. Through its EntryPoint! program, science, engineering, CS and mathematics students complete internships at major companies as an “entry point” to a full-time job.
Hundreds of students with disabilities apply for these opportunities, but only the best and most prepared are selected for the ten to twelve internships available each year. “Our job isn’t to place the students, but to advocate for them,” Stern notes.
Since EntryPoint! itself performs the initial vetting to make sure students have the appropriate skills, education and emotional readiness, companies are more than willing to accept these candidates. Participating companies include IBM, Merck, Lockheed Martin, Google, Procter & Gamble, Shell Oil, Pfizer and Infosys, and long-time partners NASA and NAVAIR.
Stern says that the AAAS has built an alumni association of some 500 members and is considering establishing an organized network to facilitate information sharing and networking to benefit new recruits.
with disabilities get a “Lift”
Lift, Inc (Warren, NJ) provides career opportunities for IT professionals with disabilities. The nonprofit was established in 1975 when few colleges offered computer programs and fewer still had the necessary accommodations for students with disabilities. The same applied to the workplace.
Lift qualifies, trains, hires and places candidates through contracts with major corporations that often wind up hiring them directly. Designed to give IT professionals with disabilities a vocational “lift,” the nonprofit combines specialized business experience in IT with expertise in recruitment, assessment and accommodation.
Donna Walters Kozberg, Lift president and CEO, points out that even though there have been improvements, professionals with disabilities still face barriers to entering the workforce. “Lift exists today because there is still anxiety about hiring someone who is different,” she says.
Lift works with recent IT grads as well as newly laid off folks, career changers and IT professionals with recently acquired disabilities. The main requirement is that candidates be physically, emotionally and mentally prepared to take on the responsibilities of an IT career professional.
Referrals for new grads are submitted by college placement centers for positions with over eighty corporate clients. Walters Kozberg notes that historically close to 88 percent of individuals hired through Lift spend at least five years at the same company. She attributes this success to placing candidates in one-year contracts that allow both the employer and the employee to test the waters before making a commitment. “Lift helps individuals with disabilities overcome the hurdle of getting that first great job,” she says.
Employers learn that communicating with the deaf is easier than they think
The National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) focuses exclusively on supporting deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT, Rochester, NY). At the core of its well-established co-op program is NTID’s Center on Employment (NCE), which assists students and graduates with job searches and partners with employers to foster successful placements.
NCE director John Macko attributes the center’s success in part to the specialized employment advisors (EAs) who work with students on resume writing, cover letters, interviewing skills and networking. The EAs also educate employers on integrating and accommodating deaf employees in the workplace through individual sessions and workshops. “Companies leave our workshops with lots of ideas for integrating deaf employees and more enthusiasm for hiring them,” he says.
A graduate of RIT, Macko credits the institution with nurturing self acceptance and instilling confidence. He was born with a sensorineural hearing loss. Despite speech therapy from age two, he did not start articulating his thoughts until he was fifteen. “As the only person with hearing loss in my hometown, I didn’t accept my disability until I met other deaf and hard-of-hearing students at RIT,” he says.
Macko uses his voice, sign language and a hearing aid to communicate. A video relay service with voice carryover enables him to communicate by phone; often callers don’t realize he’s deaf. The screen interprets the conversation so that he can respond.
Macko emphasizes that companies are constantly looking for talent. He tells his students, “You are the role model that will open the doors for newer students.” He adds, “It doesn’t matter what degrees you hold, employers want people who are motivated and can interact with all kinds of people.”
After fifteen years at NTID/RIT, Macko has noticed that employers are increasingly more comfortable hiring deaf individuals. With so many effective means of communication now available, they’re finding that integrating a deaf employee is not difficult after all. “By creating a diverse workplace, an organization is better able to serve the needs of the entire marketplace,” he says.
Affinity groups offer
support and information
Company and agency resource and affinity networks for professionals with disabilities are also easing the transition. Some extend beyond the immediate workplace to families of the disabled and even to the public at large.
Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL established such a network, called “CastAble,” in 2001. (All Disney employees are called “cast members.”) The company’s California locations formed their own branch a year ago; the group now has 400 members. CastAble president Mark Jones notes that not all members are disabled; family members and advocates for the disabled flock to the group for support and information.
CastAble offers seminars and workshops that provide resources, information and support to employees, family members and advocates, as well as Disney cast members with disabilities. “CastAble events offer comfortable settings to share information and ask questions,” says Jones.
CastAble activities extend beyond the workplace. In 2007 the group collaborated on a “Wounded Warriors Welcome” to assist wounded vets integrate back into civilian life. At the urging of its members, CastAble partnered with “Autism Speaks” to share information and resources on autism. Input into Disney products and experiences led to the deployment of JAWS technology on Disney Web and intranet sites so that Disney visitors who are blind can read image-heavy screens via voice and sound.
“CastAble is a resource for inclusiveness that helps give people a better perspective of true diversity at the company,” Jones says. “One of the benefits is an increased awareness among colleagues without disabilities.”
Jacqueline Yee is a mainframe
programmer at New York Life
Jacqueline Yee worked at the Westchester, NY office of New York Life (New York, NY) as a contractor for Lift before becoming an employee. “After a year of service, my manager was sufficiently pleased with my work to offer me a fulltime position,” she says.
Yee’s in a two-year training program for new employees who are learning mainframe programming skills. As an associate programmer in the agency compensation division, she maintains systems that ensure the accurate compensation of the company’s agents.
Yee learned about Lift through her Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID) counselor at NYU. She earned a 2005 BA in mathematics and CS at Purchase College of SUNY (Purchase, NY) and a 2007 MS in mathematics at New York University (New York, NY).
Yee was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive neuromuscular condition that leads to severe muscle weakness. She uses a motorized wheelchair and has very limited mobility.
“I am only able to drive my wheelchair and use a wireless computer mouse,” she explains. Yee relies on her personal care attendant (PCA) for all other physical activities. Throughout her schooling, PCAs have taken notes and assisted by transcribing assignments and exams.
Yee says her integration as a team member was a very smooth and natural process and that New York Life has been entirely responsive in meeting her needs. She has an on-screen keyboard that allows her to type via the mouse and special bookstands for reading reference materials. Her cubicle was rearranged to allow greater access for her wheelchair and PCA.
When Yee wanted an alternative way to access the telephone, she turned to VESID and Lift. A needs assessment by the Nathaniel H Korn-reich Technology Center (Albertson, NY) led to the development of a program by New York Life that enables Yee to communicate through her computer using a wireless headset. “I now don’t have to rely on my PCA to use the phone,” she says happily.
Yee notes that a programming career enables her to be almost entirely independent in her work. She enjoys applying her logic and problem solving skills and her creativity. “The abilities that really matter in my field are intellectual,” she explains. “I am very happy that I am with a company that recognizes this and seeks talent from the entire population of applicants, not just an exclusive subset.
“Although my disability is a part of who I am, it is not who I am,” she declares. “Perhaps living with a disability has given me greater determination, but I choose not to dwell on what is simply a fact of life, like the color of my hair.”
IT specialist at USDA
Travis Clawson worked as a summer intern with the Hispanic-serving institutions (HSI) office at the agricultural research service division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, DC. He joined the office as IT specialist after graduation.
The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) helped him land the internship and allowed Clawson’s father to serve as interpreter during a phone interview when they learned of his hearing disability.
Clawson held a virtual internship with USDA, working from college, through the fall semester. He was responsible for updating the HSI website, which reaches out to Hispanic students to inform them about the internships, scholarships and job experiences available at USDA.
Clawson earned his 2007 BS in computer information technology with an internetworking application development concentration at the Pennsylvania College of Technology (Williamsport, PA).
He’s currently working with a colleague who’s a liaison for Florida and Puerto Rico. They’re redesigning the website to provide better customer service, improve internal communications and make the website more user friendly. Clawson’s role is to design the graphics and create HTML code. “I’ve developed a template that incorporates new technology and makes the website more visually interesting to keep the user’s attention,” he explains.
Clawson takes advantage of any training and other career opportunities that come his way. At a recent IT conference he learned how to make websites more secure. He says that the new secure website he’s developing will enable the USDA-HSI office to process applications and surveys faster with a reduced threat of identity theft. “Using our website instead of outside vendors will also save the agency money,” he states proudly.
The only IT person in the office, Clawson feels greatly appreciated. The USDA-HSI has provided the necessary accommodations, including interpreters during meetings and a Sorenson videophone for weekly telephone conferences.
Clawson explains that a Sorenson videophone is a webcam that uses highspeed Internet to connect the deaf person to a hearing person via an operator. The operator facilitates the call and acts as interpreter. The deaf person sees the operator signing on either a computer or a TV and the hearing person hears the operator through the telephone.
Clawson enjoys advising new interns on how to make the most of an internship. With the help of an interpreter he’s shared his personal experiences at intern orientations. “I’m helping other interns with disabilities understand more about the programs and work experience as well as housing and transportation,” he says.
Most people with hearing loss know about technology that’s available to help them communicate. Clawson says what they need is mentoring and encouragement to ease the transition into the workforce. He’s already mentored a hearing-impaired intern. “Addressing the intern’s concerns through sign language helps the intern feel more comfortable and confident in his skills and abilities,” he says.
“Disabled people are capable of doing a good job just like anybody else.”
Wess Workneh provides
L2 support for IBM’s
WebSphere application server
Wosenseged (Wess) Seyoum Workneh is thriving at his job in tech support at the Durham, NC WebSphere application server level 2 support division of IBM (Armonk, NY). Currently working on contract through Lift, he hopes to be offered a fulltime position at the end of the year.
Workneh was one of the first Gates Millennium scholarship award recipients. He earned his 2004 bachelors in CS and math at Hofstra University (Hempstead, NY) and his 2007 MSCS at Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ). While waiting to enroll in a PhD program, he worked at Rutgers’ computer science lab helping develop computer programs to make technology more accessible to blind students entering the field.
A delay in processing the paperwork for his PhD program forced Workneh to change his course. He got a job in database development at Vision, an organization based in New York that offers services to the blind. Looking for more challenge, he contacted Lift. When he heard about a CS opening at IBM through Lift he eagerly accepted.
Workneh’s vision consists mainly of light and shadows and limited shapes and colors. He’s been diabetic since childhood, and developed diabetic retinopathy in his teens. A medical mishap during laser surgery to correct internal bleeding in his eyes contributed to his vision loss at age eighteen. Since then he’s focused on making himself as flexible as possible to qualify for work. “Anything related to computers will be a good job for me,” he says.
Workneh works in a team of thirty techies providing support for IBM’s WebSphere application server software development kit. Helping clients troubleshoot server problems, he may find existing solutions, or, in more complicated cases, work with his team to devise new ones. He also helps clients develop software applications tailored to their needs.
When he arrived at IBM the company quickly provided all the necessary technology to accommodate Workneh’s disability. Most critical is the screen reader that was installed at his request. The software arranges the computer visuals to allow Workneh to respond more easily. It also provides audible keyboard support, enabling him to type and enter information relevant to clients.
Workneh notes that the benefits of hiring professionals with disabilities can be far reaching. For example, IBM can develop adaptive products and solutions that cater to the needs of its disabled customers as it learns how to accommodate employees within the company. “It’s a win-win situation,” he says.
Sterling Johnson is a program
analyst at U.S. Department of State
Sterling Johnson joined information program services at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC in June 2008. As program analyst, he processes requests for information from department employees and the general public.
He uses various search engines to comb through databases and then organizes the information in a format that’s readable. The media and citizen groups are typical customers. For example, he may be asked to locate information about a visa application that dates back to 1990 for an ongoing court case.
Johnson earned his 2007 bachelors in international relations from American University (Washington, DC) and is on track to complete his masters in geography at George Washington University (Washington, DC) in 2009. He gained his IT knowledge and expertise during college internships.
Johnson was born with TAR syndrome, a rare condition characterized by the absence of the radius bones in his arms. He has other medical issues, including a low blood platelet count and club feet that require him to wear sneakers instead of dress shoes. His biggest challenge is overcoming a tendency to be judged by his appearance. “People tend to stereotype me as less capable or unprofessional,” he says, “but I believe that I overcome that by bringing a lot of positive energy to the workplace every day.”
Johnson has found the public sector very accommodating. He’s an active member of a resource group that provides support and general advocacy for the disabled. “I may type a little slower than my colleagues, but I’m the second-highest producer on my nine-person team,” he says.
Johnson plans to stay at his job after earning his masters. He’s confident that his coursework will enhance his technical skills in mapping technologies, content management and accessing databases. He urges young people to seriously explore government careers. “The government is very open to hiring people with disabilities, both mental and physical.”
IBM’s Kevin Cheung
is a technical writer
Kevin Cheung has been a Lift consultant at IBM (Armonk, NY) since July 2008. As an information developer he does tech writing at IBM’s data studio, warehouse, and traceability server information development division in San Jose, CA.
Cheung earned his BA in cognitive science at the University of California-Berkeley in 2005. He contacted Lift about jobs in web development, but was asked to consider tech-writing positions when an interviewer noted that he’d taken several linguistics courses and developed strong writing skills.
He’s part of an eight-member team that works with a wider network of virtual colleagues in various countries. Cheung collaborates with software developers to provide online documentation and instruction for IBM products and features. “My job is to make our documentation accessible, readable and understandable to the average customer or user of our technologies,” he explains.
Cheung sustained a C5 spinal cord injury at age twelve and uses a power wheelchair. He was always interested in computers and his accident motivated him to turn his passion into a career. He appreciates the support he received from his community. “There was a lot of peer pressure to go to college and succeed,” he says.
Cheung credits IBM for its flexible work environment and welcoming approach to people with disabilities. He brought in his own speakerphone and keyboard, which the company integrated into its systems.
In fact, Cheung’s main challenge is not at work but in navigating daily life, from getting ready for work in the morning to organizing the help he needs. He gets to work in a wheelchair-accessible van that his roommate drives.
Cheung hopes that he will follow in the tradition of so many other Lift consultants and be offered a fulltime job when his contract ends.
portfolio manager at WellPoint
Sam Mantel leveraged his computer and project management skills to land a consulting job at WellPoint, Inc (Indianapolis, IN) through Pittsburgh, PA-based Bender Consulting Services. After only eight months he became a fulltime WellPoint associate in January 2009.
As portfolio manager for WellPoint’s IT project and portfolio management division in Mason, OH, Mantel works in the project management office. He’s responsible for supporting about 200 program and project managers on all IT-related planning, scheduling and budgetary functions.
WellPoint is a health benefit company and a member of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association with licensees in fourteen states. One of the programs mandated by BCBS is national provider identification. Mantel supports the program by planning budgetary outlays, tracking spending and other resource expenditures and developing software if needed.
Mantel earned his 1979 BSCS at Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) and his 1982 MBA in operations management/business administration at the University of Cincinnati, OH. He was born with retinal albinism, a condition that reduces his visual acuity. Over the years, he’s developed cataracts and astigmatism, both of which exacerbate his sight problems.
It was “pure serendipity” that brought Mantel to his present position. He had returned home to Ohio after being laid off from a job in northern Virginia. When his sister remarked that Mantel seemed to be having difficulty hearing what she was saying, he consulted a doctor who diagnosed a hearing loss.
On the doctor’s recommendation, Mantel consulted the Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, an agency that serves Ohioans with disabilities. The Bureau not only helped him get hearing aids, it also referred him to Bender. The consulting group creates employment and career opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The rest is history.
Mantel has found a great fit at WellPoint. He praises the company for seeking out the best IT and technical people, regardless of physical ability, and for accommodating his needs and those of others at the company.
VP and chief diversity officer David Casey says that WellPoint “places a strategic focus on hiring individuals with disabilities.” The company has dedicated resources to developing partnerships, providing accommodations and promoting disability awareness training.
Casey notes that disabled Americans have the highest rate of unemployment of any group, which can leave them uninsured. “By providing opportunities for meaningful employment, we advance our strategies for inclusive hiring and, at the same time, help reduce the uninsured population,” he says.
WellPoint encouraged the formation of an associate resource group (ARG) for associates with disabilities. The ARG’s mission is to support both disabled employees and their families.
Cindy Ausilio, senior project manager at WellPoint’s comprehensive health solutions division in Springfield, MO, is co-leader for the ARG. She had childhood polio, and complications made her a wheelchair user. Ausilio has worked at WellPoint for sixteen years, and agrees with Mantel that her job is “a joy.” She praises the company for its open-mindedness in allowing her to work from home.
Through the ARG, Ausilio and her colleagues hope to expand communications around disabilities, show employees how to get the assistive devices they need, and help managers learn how to work with disabled team members.
In 2008 WellPoint received a New Freedom Initiative Award from the Secretary of Labor. The program was established in 2002 to recognize non-profits, small businesses, corporations and individuals that have demonstrated exemplary and innovative efforts in furthering the employment and workplace environment for people with disabilities.
Blake Trauger is a
mechanical engineering technologist
at Avery Dennison
Blake Trauger credits the excellent education he received at NTID/RIT for putting him on the path to a successful career at Avery Dennison (Pasadena, CA). “I gained a lot of experience and confidence through the five co-ops I completed,” he says.
Recruited as a senior, Trauger joined the company shortly after graduation in May 2008. He’s in a rotational program designed to develop leadership skills. “We hold a position for one year before moving on to a new role and responsibilities the next year,” he explains.
Avery Dennison works in pressure-sensitive technology, self-adhesive base materials and self-adhesive consumer and office products. It offers items like reflective and graphic materials, peel and stick postage stamps, industrial labeling solutions, binders, and more. The company has manufacturing and distribution facilities in more than sixty countries around the world.
In his current rotation Trauger is working as an enterprise lean Sigma (ELS) training development associate for global operations at the company’s Chicopee, MA site. Avery Dennison uses a lean Sigma approach company-wide. “Lean signifies waste elimination and Sigma stands for variation reduction,” Trauger explains.
Trauger is leading a team of subject matter experts that’s developing training material on a specific tool. He’s also managing projects for the company’s internal website. His responsibilities include data management, design changes, communications, marketing and customer support.
He works with the IT team to manage the ELS resource center intranet site. “I’m responsible for making the changes to the website designs, finding out what the customers want and improving site navigation,” he says.
Trauger was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss as a toddler, and was profoundly deaf by the time he was three. As a child he wore hearing aids and learned sign language along with family members. At age eight he got a cochlear implant and learned to speak and listen through therapy.
Always interested in how things work, Trauger took engineering-related courses in high school and was accepted at NTID/RIT. “NTID is the only technical college in the world for the deaf and their interpreting and note-taking services are excellent,” he notes.
NTID is known for its co-op program. John Macko, director of NTID’s center on employment, explains that IT students are required to complete three co-ops and engineering students must complete five co-ops of ten weeks each with at least two companies. “This helps us gain solid professional and engineering experience,” says Trauger. Of the 255 students placed in co-ops during the 2007-08 academic year, sixty-seven were in engineering and fifty-four in IT.
Trauger’s co-op experiences included two quarters at Oxbo International, an agricultural company in Byron, NY, where he worked on mechanical designs for tractors and applications. His third co-op was with Mack Trucks in Allentown, PA where he focused on analyzing customer complaints as a quality engineer. After this internship he decided to minor in writing studies to improve his communications and writing skills. “My supervisor was encouraging me to communicate via email,” he notes.
His final two co-ops were at Cummins Engine Co in Jamestown, NY where he worked as a manufacturing engineer for the machining department. The plant was so large Trauger was forced to begin communicating via a captioned telephone that displays the caller’s words on screen. He was so pleased with this accomplishment that he convinced another hearing impaired co-worker to get a captioned phone as well.
Trauger’s education and work experience have served him well. Before joining Avery Dennison he went through an intensive two-day interview process without using an interpreter. “Through my co-ops I had gained the confidence to compete with hearing students,” he states proudly.
Avery Dennison has given Trauger a TV screen and videophone. Instant messaging has also helped facilitate global communication. In face-to-face settings co-workers have learned to face Trauger when they speak and white boards and flip charts are used as visual aids at meetings. “I can function in a meeting without an interpreter,” he says with a smile.
Deryle Abraham is a
supervisory management and
program analyst at USCIS
Deryle Abraham joined the program management and analysis unit at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in Dallas, TX in 2005 at a GS9 level. He was responsible for tasks like writing instruction books for operating programs. USCIS is one of the twenty-two agencies that make up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (Washington, DC).
He works extensively with Microsoft Access software, running ad hoc queries, accessing and cross-referencing information, and developing reports for management. As one of the few employees skilled in Access, Abraham was soon deluged by requests for information from his colleagues.
Within two years he had progressed to his current GS12 level position as supervisory management and program analyst with the contract performance analysis unit. Today Abraham manages a team of eight and is responsible for building programs, submitting queries and collecting data in various databases through Access. His team may field requests to find missing files on hundreds of individuals, locate information to process visa applications, or investigate the legality of a business’s clearance to work with DHS.
Abraham was just two when an auto accident left him a T-3 paraplegic. He spent the next eleven years in Texas Elks Crippled Children’s Hospital, an institution for rehabilitation and research that treated mentally ill as well as disabled children.
At age thirteen, Abraham went home to his family and began a challenging adjustment to life outside the hospital. Learning to socialize as a wheelchair-using high school student was especially difficult. “It wasn’t until college that I began to feel normal,” he says.
Abraham holds a 2003 bachelors and a 2004 masters in computer information systems from Tarleton State University (Stephenville, TX). He is the first in his family to graduate from high school, let alone earn an advanced degree.
But landing a stable job has always been a major challenge. After being laid off several times, Abraham got an internship through a government program that identifies opportunities within government agencies for workers with disabilities. While interning at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Missouri he developed a strong network that helped him find the job at USCIS.
Abraham feels secure at USCIS because of its strong EEOC program. Immediate accommodations included making space for his wheelchair and installing a button to automatically open the door to his building. As a team leader, he’s grown in self-esteem and confidence. “I’m ready for the challenges ahead,” he says.
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