Grads with disabilities find meaningful work
Employers want the creativity of people with disabilities
“Every time a person with a disability and skills gets a job and does it well, it breaks down attitudinal barriers.” – Virginia Stern at AAAS
By Robin Allen
'There is no question that companies are seeking diversity in every area, including disabilities,” says Virginia Stern, director of the Project on Science, Technology and Disability at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, Washington, DC).
Even in an economy where hiring has been affected across the board, employers are still interested in talking to people with disabilities, she notes, especially in the private sector. “They want the creativity that people with disabilities have.”
But doors have not always been open to these folks. It took federal legislation to begin changing perceptions about people with disabilities.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Its intent was to open up services and employment opportunities to the millions of Americans with disabilities. It also outlawed physical barriers in public accommodations, transportation, telecommunications and government services.
“Before the ADA, it was extremely difficult for people with disabilities to find meaningful employment,” says Stern. The twentieth anniversary of the act is July 26, 2010.
AAAS helps students
with disabilities get internships
Stern has worked in the disability arena for over forty years. She believes that the foundation for the success of people with disabilities is often in the academic world. “Higher education must provide support services for disabled students under the law,” she explains.
But making the transition to the workforce is often a challenge for new grads with disabilities. AAAS helps students with this next step. Its Entrypoint! program works with private and public organizations to find competitive, paid internships for students with disabilities studying math, science, engineering or computer science. It also co-sponsors a summer internship program with NASA. Through these programs, STEM students with disabilities can apply their skills in a real-world setting.
Success helps overcome barriers
People with disabilities who enter the workplace must often overcome misconceptions about their capabilities. “Persistence is one of the outstanding characteristics of people with disabilities who are hired and succeed in their jobs,” says Stern.
Support comes in many forms. For example, “Assistive technology means everything a person needs to communicate and function,” says Stern. “This includes any kind of software, computer, relay system, sign language interpretation, real-time captioning, and more.”
Today, there are fewer barriers and more people with disabilities who have college degrees and challenging jobs. “Attitudinal barriers are the most difficult to overcome,” says Stern. “Every time a person with a disability and skills gets a job and does it well, it breaks down attitudinal barriers.”
Raytheon’s Elizabeth Carter
is standardizing factories
Elizabeth Carter is an industrial engineer at Raytheon Missile Systems (Tucson, AZ), which provides a variety of missiles and related technology to the U.S. and allied forces.
She joined the company in 2007 and is currently working as a team leader on a project that focuses on standardizing factories. “I’ve gained a lot of experience by interacting and solving problems,” she says.
“I chose industrial engineering because it’s a hands-on career that allows me to create an effective production flow,” she says. “I also get to talk with operators about ergonomic concerns.”
As part of the standardization project, Carter is working on receiving/scanning facility layouts, a pilot ergonomic study and a vacuum-form project. “I like the variety because it allows me to be very creative in thinking of better solutions to those problems,” she says. “I really enjoy my job.”
Carter was born deaf and grew up in New Hope, MN. She earned her 2004 BSIE and her 2006 masters in engineering management at Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY). She went on to earn her MBA at Keller Graduate School of Management (Phoenix, AZ) in 2008.
Raytheon provides a fulltime sign language interpreter for meetings, a TTY and a pager. “I also try to overcome the communication barrier by talking with co-workers one to one,” she says.
Carter is eager to increase her knowledge and experience. “I want to work with the supply chain specialists because they handle production control, which is part of IE,” she explains. Her long-term goal is to work on international projects for Raytheon. She would also consider pursuing a PhD, “but I’m not yet sure in which subject!”
She urges people with similar disabilities to focus on their goals and not give up their dreams. “If they stay strong, they will achieve.”
Bee Vang: computer specialist
at the USDA
Bee Vang works in IT at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Washington, DC). His job is to help internal customers install software and troubleshoot error messages.
Most people want things done the right way, he says, but they’re also anxious to get back to work. “They need their computers fixed right away.”
Vang earned his 2009 BS in applied arts and science with a concentration in IT and quality management at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT, Rochester, NY). He also holds a 2007 AS degree in applied computer technology from RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
For Vang, working in IT is like playing with toys. “Learning to build and rebuild a new machine is exciting and fun,” he says. “It feels like a hobby.”
A bout with meningitis when he was two left Vang with hearing loss. Today, the only real challenge he has is when he’s troubleshooting and trying to figure out an error message. “Error messages usually give a signal with beeping sounds,” he explains, “which I sometimes have a hard time hearing.”
For most communications, Vang uses Sprint Relay and email. He requests a live communicator or interpreter for major meetings.
Vang plans to get network certification. Eventually, he wants to work his way up to network or information chief. “Your dreams or goals will come true if you work hard and just go for it,” he says.
is a financial analyst at Boeing
Pretema Latchman is a financial analyst at the Boeing Company (Chicago, IL), a global aerospace company and manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft.
She’s working on the CH-47 Chinook helicopter international program in Ridley Township, PA. Her job involves analyzing and reporting financial statements, developing estimates, explaining variances, and preparing and presenting financial performance and forecast data. She’s also involved in the unit’s long-range business plan.
“I love the business function I work in because of its dynamic and active environment. I work with program managers and various departments to make sure that everyone has the information they need to make financial decisions,” she says.
Latchman graduated in December 2003 with a BSCS from Binghamton University of the State University of New York (Binghamton, NY). She chose computer science because she was intrigued by the study and practice of computation, algorithmic reasoning and computer programming. “I enjoyed the challenge of applying specific program languages, such as Java and C++, to solve computational problems,” she says.
She went on to earn an MBA in technology management and an MIS at Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY), both in 2006. “I wanted to expand my knowledge in technology and learn about business functions such as marketing, financial accounting and operations management,” she says.
Latchman has a moderate to severe sensorineural hearing loss in both ears, caused by the scarlet fever she had when she was two months old. “I learned to compensate for my hearing difficulties by utilizing digital hearing aids, participating in speech therapy and learning to lip-read,” she says.
For large conferences, Latchman uses C-Print captioning, a speech-to-text service that displays spoken words for her to read, or Boeing’s new onsite sign-language interpreting service. In classroom environments, she wears an assistive listening device, an FM modulator that amplifies the sound of the instructor’s voice and transmits it to her digital hearing aids. She also has an external volume amplifier for her phone that allows her to manually adjust the volume for each caller.
At meetings and conferences, Latchman takes the initiative to tell other participants about her disability and asks them to face her when they speak. She also positions herself next to the main speaker or at a location that allows her to read lips. “I’m truly grateful for the supportive environment Boeing offers,” she says. “It helps me overcome day-to-day challenges.”
Latchman’s biggest concern is ensuring that she gets accurate financial information for her analyses and reports. She reads all the available documentation, sets up one-on-one meetings with management and uses e-mail, instant messenger and WebEx to get the details she needs.
It was her mother’s unrelenting determination, courage, persistence and love that helped motivate Latchman to achieve. “Because of her, I don’t view my disability as an impediment,” she says. “Instead, it’s a source of inner strength.”
Latchman dreams of finding new solutions for the hearing impaired and eventually wants to pursue a PhD in the hearing sciences, or obtain a doctor of audiology license so that she can start her own business.
“Never lose sight of your academic dreams and career goals,” she urges. “Work hard, be patient, be persistent, and believe in yourself. In time, you will achieve your goals.”
Jimmy Liang is on a systems
integration project at Wells Fargo
Jimmy Liang is a systems QA analyst/engineer at Wells Fargo (San Francisco, CA), a diversified financial services company that provides personal banking, investing services, small business and commercial banking.
Liang has been in his job a little over a year. His work involves reviewing, developing and executing system tests. He’s actively involved in a high profile systems integration project. “It’s exciting to be part of the integration efforts to bring Wells Fargo and Wachovia together seamlessly,” he says. “I’m seeing it from beginning to end.”
His team is preparing for the smooth transition of several large projects. “It’s a good opportunity for me to show my skills and continue to build my career,” he says.
Liang earned his 2006 BSEE at Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY). His father has a BSME and masters in control engineering. “Like my father, I’m always interested in solving problems and coming up with better solutions that result in more efficient uses of resources,” he says. “Engineering is about finding simplicity, the path of least resistance to get the desired action.”
Born deaf, Liang considers it a challenge, but not a barrier. Nevertheless, he does look for opportunities that provide optimal accessibility. “Wells Fargo is open to suggestions for improving their services,” he notes. “And they’re vigilant about arranging accommodations to ensure that employees with disabilities are able to participate fully.”
Liang views communication as a two-way street that applies to hearing people as well as those who are deaf or hard of hearing. “Deafness has taught me that transparent communication is crucial for a task or a project to be successful,” he says. “We all need to communicate early and frequently to do our jobs right.”
He uses email and AIM or Microsoft Communicator to open channels of communication. When he meets face to face with team members, he generally uses paper and pen, or an interpreter when necessary. “My deafness doesn’t impede my ability to perform my job,” he says. “I can do everything. I just can’t hear.”
Liang wants to show others in the deaf community that it’s possible to succeed in a hearing environment and find the right balance between their lives and careers. He’s reaching out to the hearing community as well, presenting workshops for people interested in learning more about deaf culture.
“Many hearing people who completed my workshop tell me that they can understand deaf people better and feel more comfortable interacting with them at work and outside work,” he says. “It’s like visiting a foreign country and trying to understand both your country and theirs without bias, premature judgment or awkwardness.”
Liang plans a long career in technology. He’d eventually like to earn an MBA to expand his knowledge and capabilities. “There’s always room for improvement no matter where you are in life,” he says. “I have no plans to stop anytime soon.”
Ken Dillon researches aircraft parts
at Northrop Grumman
Ken Dillon is a logistics management analyst at Northrop Grumman Corp (Los Angeles, CA), a global security company that provides innovative systems, products and solutions in aerospace, electronics, information systems, shipbuilding and technical services to government and commercial customers worldwide.
Since 2008 he has worked at Northrop Grumman Technical Services in Oklahoma City, OK, where his job is to minimize manufacturing source and materials shortages for airplanes. He finds replacements for obsolete electronic parts that have been flagged in technical orders. “And if we can, we get an update to the technical order so the customer will have the most current information on the part when they need it,” he says.
Landing a job at Northrop Grumman has allowed Dillon to apply some of his military background. He retired in 2003 as a technical sergeant after serving twenty years in the U.S. Air Force.
“I was a digital flight simulator maintenance specialist and worked on C-141 and C-5 simulators,” he says. “I was working around hydraulic pumps all the time.”
This left Dillon with a high frequency hearing loss. He’s been rated a 30 percent disabled veteran.
To accommodate his hearing loss, Dillon uses hearing aids and raises the volume on his phone. “In general, I try to stay away from loud areas,” he says. “In those instances, I take the hearing aids out!”
Dillon likes the research aspect of his job because it relates to history. “Some of the aircraft technical orders I’m working with were written in the 1950s,” he says. “From my maintenance background, I know what part the maintainer is talking about and whether or not it has to be tested first.”
Dillon was forty-seven when he earned his 2008 bachelors degree at the University of Central Oklahoma (Edmond, OK). “I went to school nights and weekends,” he says. “The last two years I completed online.” He’s now planning to pursue his masters.
He’s also been thinking about learning sign language. “It’s a second language,” he says with a smile. “That would be a benefit wherever I work.”
Kerrie Peterson works at the USDA’s food and safety inspection service
Kerrie Peterson is an assistant program analyst in the workplace violence prevention program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food and safety inspection service (Washington, DC).
She’s the youngest in her department and has developed a reputation for her mediation and training skills. “I love to research and analyze problems from actual incidents. I create, plan, manage and develop ideas for program marketing resource materials, and I present workplace violence prevention training at conferences,” she says. “I work with everyone.”
A videophone allows Peterson to communicate with fellow employees. “That’s how I do my job,” she says. Videophone is a fast-growing telephone technology particularly useful to the deaf and speech impaired who want to communicate in sign language. It is capable of both audio and video transmission over a phone line or the Internet. A sign-language interpreter can facilitate communication from a remote location if necessary.
Peterson earned her 2009 degree in psychology at Gallaudet University (Washington, DC). It’s a school for the deaf and hard of hearing, but hearing students can attend, she notes. Peterson was born deaf, and learned sign language when she was two. She attended school in both deaf-only and hearing environments. “From the third grade, I was the only person in the school district who was deaf,” she says. “I had an interpreter, and hearing teachers and classmates.”
Peterson plans to stay with the federal government and pursue a career in human resources. “I want to do HR analysis or be a mediator,” she says. Eventually, she’d like to work as an advocate for people with disabilities.
Anu Ambati is an internal auditor
at Rockwell Collins
Anu Ambati is an internal auditor at Rockwell Collins (Cedar Rapids, IA), a manufacturer of aviation electronics and communication equipment for commercial and military aircraft.
She supports external auditors and performs operational audits. This involves dealing with inventory management and ensuring that Rockwell Collins is in compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley laws.
“I travel frequently to our regional locations,” she says. “I interact with different levels of Rockwell Collins people and personalities.”
Ambati was born in India and moved to the U.S. when she was five. At age fourteen, she was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, involuntary movements and vocalizations called tics.
She had symptoms as a child in elementary school, but they were subtle and unnoticeable and seemed to go away. “My eyes would blink and I would make weird noises,” she says.
When she was first diagnosed, Ambati was given medication to help control her symptoms. She explains that there is no known cure for Tourette syndrome; every medicine in trial is hit or miss and there are side effects, like weight gain and muscle stiffness. “I took medicine for seven years,” she says.
In spite of this challenge, Ambati earned her 2005 bachelors in business administration and accounting and her 2007 masters in accounting at Eastern Michigan University (Ypsilanti, MI). She met her husband during her second year of grad school. “We discussed my health right away,” she says. “I was honest.”
Ambati took a dance course in college and discovered a new source of relief. “Exercise helped my mind and body,” she explains. “It took my mind off being different.” By her third year in college, she had stopped taking medicine altogether.
Ambati believes that her strong will helped her get the grades that earned her scholarships. Getting her driver’s license was another matter. “My parents were worried, but I wanted my freedom,” she says. “It took a lot of convincing. I finally got my license when I was twenty-one, after I had stopped taking medication.”
On the job, Ambati doesn’t require any particular accommodation. She says she doesn’t allow her disease to manage her; instead, she manages it. “I’ve learned to control my movements, and I make sure to put myself in a comfortable position,” she explains.
“Accomplishments and achievements make a difference,” she adds. “Tourette’s is part of my everyday life. I have tics. My manager and people at work know about it.”
Ambati is currently working toward CPA certification.
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