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Focus on diversity

New grads with disabilities thrive in tech jobs

"Individuals with disabilities are creative problem-solvers." – Richard Weibl, AAAS Project on Science, Technology and Disability

"Recruiting and hiring young people with disabilities just makes good business sense." – Gwen Houston, Microsoft


In today's competitive global economy, both private corporations and government research agencies realize that expanding their pools of talented tech employees is key to continued growth. Several programs across the U.S. aim to help diverse techies, including those with disabilities, enter the workforce.

Since 1996, EntryPoint! (www.entrypoint.org), a program run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, Washington, DC), has placed about 700 aspiring scientists and engineers with disabilities in summer internships. Close to 93 percent of those former students are working in tech industries today, demonstrating that students with disabilities have enormous career potential, reports Richard Weibl, director of the AAAS Project on Science, Technology and Disability.

"There's a recognition within companies that folks with disabilities, through the course of their life experience, have had to become creative problem solvers," says Weibl. "As a consequence, they have a very transferable skill set. Their approach to problems may be richer, deeper and more complex. It adds value to them as employees."

Over the years AAAS has partnered with companies including IBM, NASA, Merck, Ball Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Pfizer and more. These connections have helped many young tech grads get a strong leg up in the industry, adds Weibl. Dow Chemical Company and L'Oréal USA have also signed on for this year's summer program.

"Our partners, especially IBM and NASA, have been very dedicated to our program," Weibl says. "Each of those employers has also done a lot to develop the students. Interns do real research and real science, and they get solid professional development skills."

Weibl notes some additional benefits of EntryPoint! internships. "First, the company says, 'Having interns who have disabilities isn't as scary as we thought it was,' and managers realize that the talent and creative problem-solving skills are there," he explains.

"The other thing is you have an influence back on campus. Last summer, one of our students at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center spent time in their super clean room, preparing a satellite that was shot up into space. Another one did an F-16 flight simulator for Ball Aerospace. These students have amazing experiences, then go back and tell faculty members who thought they were average students: 'I have what it takes to do this well for first-class companies and organizations.'"

RIT/NTID: Positive co-op can ease transition from college to workplace
"It can be scary for students with disabilities to make the transition from college to the workplace," says John Macko, director of the center on employment at Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID). Created in 1965 by an act of Congress, NTID is a career-focused college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Ninety percent of its grads who seek employment find jobs in their fields within a year.

"One of the best ways for students to make a smooth transition from college to the workplace is to have a positive cooperative work experience," says Macko. He notes that NTID has the fifth-largest co-op program and is the fourth-oldest co-op program in the U.S.

"Students need to think about whether they want to work for private companies, federal agencies or nonprofit organizations, and about the company's history of hiring people with disabilities. If there is a solid history at a company, there is a good chance that it will have most of the resources and accommodations to offer the students."

Having a deaf person or a person with a disability in a company can trigger anxiety in some non-disabled individuals, notes Macko. "A person with a disability has the added concern of whether he/she will be productive. I do know from my personal experience that if the deaf workers have all the resources and accommodations to do the jobs, they will be more productive. When companies give them the opportunities, it is a win-win, and increases awareness in the workplace."

The students profiled for this article have taken a variety of paths, but all have found supportive employers and fulfilling careers.

Bill Atkinson is a strength engineer for Boeing's F/A-18 Hornet
When he was eight years old, Bill Atkinson dreamed of designing advanced fighter aircraft. But his sixth grade teacher in Alexandria, VA told his parents he would likely never learn to read.

"I have dyslexia and attention deficit disorder," says Atkinson. "I often write or type the wrong letters if they are similar in shape. I also flip letters in words, which affects my reading abilities. Luckily, my dyslexia is limited to letters and not numbers."

Atkinson attended private middle school and high school to work through his learning disabilities. He then enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT, Rochester, NY).

"In middle school, I learned a specific set of techniques that helped me process information correctly," recalls Atkinson. "I read a sentence three times: the first time to pick up letters, the second for the individual words, and the third to read the sentence all together. Because of this, I tend to read and write slowly."

Through hard work and determination, Atkinson realized his dream. He received his BSME with an aerospace specialty and a minor in science technology and environmental studies from RIT in May 2009. Two years later he earned his MSME with specialties in fluids and structural design.

Two of Atkinson's five college internships were organized through EntryPoint!: one at NASA's Ames Research Center (Moffett Field, CA) in the summer of 2008 and the other at NASA's Glenn Research Center (Cleveland, OH) in 2010. Atkinson also interned at Primus Technologies (Williamsport, PA) in 2006, Boeing Aerospace in Huntsville, LA in 2007 and BorgWarner (Ithaca, NY) in 2008.

Right after graduation, Atkinson started working for Boeing Aerospace at its St. Louis site, as a strength engineer for the company's F/A-18E Hornet fleet. "What better place to live my dream than working at one of the leading aerospace companies in the world," he says with a smile.

Atkinson analyzes parts from the fleet of Super Hornets to determine if they should be repaired or replaced. "The most fulfilling aspect of my work is that it makes a difference in the lives of U.S. military pilots," he says. "Every time fighter pilots step into their aircraft, they trust that the engineers and ground crews have made the airplanes ready to go. I help create that trust."

Atkinson will soon be joining a team that helps extend the service life of existing Super Hornets. "This involves structural analysis using finite element models and CAD software," he explains, adding that although he still struggles with his dyslexia, he has found ways to work through it. "I'm in the process of getting approval to install text-to-speech software on my computer. I would say to students, 'Don't let anyone say you can't do something because of your disability; keep pushing and pursue that dream job.'"

Boeing: creating a competitive advantage
Joyce Tucker, VP of global diversity and employee rights, notes that Boeing (Chicago, IL) strives to "tap into the diversity of all of our people; that is, the backgrounds, experiences, cultures, perspectives and talents of all of our employees, so we can leverage our differences as strengths to create a competitive advantage for Boeing."

Aerospace giant Boeing manufactures commercial jetliners and defense, space and security systems. The company employs more than 170,000 across the U.S. and in seventy countries.

Boeing engineers comprise approximately 31 percent of the total Boeing workforce. More than 140,000 employees hold college degrees, including nearly 35,000 advanced degrees, in virtually every business and technical field from approximately 2,700 colleges and universities worldwide.

Will Roach is a 747-8 manufacturing engineer for Boeing Commercial Airplanes
Will Roach was born and raised in Big Horn, WY. He earned his associates in computer integrated machining technology at RIT/NTID and his 2009 BSME in technology at RIT.

Roach describes his decision to join Boeing after graduation as "a no-brainer." He's currently a 747-8 final assembly manufacturing engineer at Boeing's Everett, WA location.

"Boeing is one of most respected companies in the USA, and gives an employee like me many opportunities to stay on the path to success," says Roach, who is profoundly deaf. "My role is mainly a 'middle man' between the mechanics and the design. I ensure that my installation plans accurately translate the drawings into instructions for the mechanics to install. I love working on the factory floor with other engineers. It's amazing to see how an airplane is assembled with many thousands of parts."

In the past, communication barriers made breaking into the tech field more difficult. "The current technology, including video phones and email, has played a huge role in breaking down those barriers," explains Roach. "The challenges would have been much tougher if it weren't for new technologies."

Roach uses American Sign Language as well as company email, instant messaging and a videophone to communicate with his hearing co-workers. He plans to add an iPad2 to his arsenal.

Michael Anthony is a software development engineer at Microsoft
Michael Anthony, who has severe/profound bilateral hearing loss, grew up in Illinois and Iowa. He began studying at RIT/NTID in 2005, earning a dual BS in CS and game development and design from RIT in 2010.

As an undergrad, Anthony interned at Skyworks, an IT tech company in Cedar Rapids, IA and at Ratatoskr, a small startup in Rochester where he created a game prototype. He also worked on campus for a government IT project.

Anthony had no trouble breaking into the competitive tech market upon graduation. He hired on at Microsoft (Redmond, WA) as a software development engineer in the summer of 2010, right after exams ended.

"Microsoft is well known for being extremely helpful to people with disabilities in the workplace, so that was a big plus," says Anthony. "I also wanted to work in an area somewhat related to game development. While I am not directly making games, I'm supporting a popular game console. Having the co-op experiences at RIT helped me break into the field and helped me learn the skills to succeed after graduation. I learned to be confident and not afraid to ask for help."

Anthony works with a team to come up with solutions for Microsoft's e-commerce platform that powers Xbox Live and Zune Marketplace. He works around his disability. "I use hearing aids for most of my day, and I have interpreters with me for all of my meetings," he says. "Most of the time when I'm on my own, I can work with my team in person. Each office has its own whiteboard so we use that along with email and IM."

Anthony gets the most job satisfaction knowing that he works on projects that millions of people worldwide can appreciate. "It's nice to know something small I did helps drive the big software and back-end stuff that Xbox uses."

Microsoft: Hiring new techies with disabilities makes good business sense
In addition to enhancing its workforce, recruiting and hiring young people with disabilities just makes good business sense, says Gwen Houston, Microsoft's general manager of global diversity and inclusion.

"New grads bring fresh perspectives on strategies for meeting business challenges and achieving success," adds Houston. "Hiring young people with disabilities is also a valuable way to reach out to an important market base."

Being inclusive and recruiting high-caliber candidates with disabilities is an important aspect of Microsoft's corporate culture, says Houston. "We know that in order to lead in today's competitive marketplace, our company must hire and retain talented people from diverse backgrounds, experiences and lifestyles to anticipate and respond to the needs of an increasingly global customer base. We strive to deliver accommodations that are world-class, so that every employee is able to thrive."

Microsoft employs nearly 91,000 worldwide. "We source for new grads with disabilities at the same colleges and universities where other new talent is tapped, but we also participate in job fairs at Gallaudet University (Washington, DC) and RIT/NTID. Microsoft is also an active member of Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities and the Washington State Business Leadership Network."

Microsoft reaches out directly to young people with disabilities to educate them about careers in technology, Houston reports. "Through job shadowing, career days, internships, scholarships, curriculum development, campus visits, panel discussions among employees with disabilities, as well as software donations, we show them a future full of possibilities."

Some of Microsoft's educational partnerships include the University of Washington's Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT) program. "We ensure that students with disabilities are included in Microsoft programs such as the DigiGirlz high-tech camps and high school internship programs. These programs enable students with disabilities to spend time in a workplace, talk to professionals doing the kind of work in which they are interested, and potentially see people with their kind of disability succeeding in their target career. This also serves as an important element of Microsoft's pipeline development of a diverse pool of potential employees."

To help foster diversity and inclusion, Microsoft has a community of employee resource groups ERGs and employee networks, adds Houston. The cross-disability (XD) ERG was formed in 2009 from constituents of ten other ERGs to enable people of all abilities to be successful. The XD ERG represents employees with conditions such as deafness, blindness, visual impairments, ADD, mobility disabilities and dyslexia. It works with nationwide associations, nonprofit organizations and special interest groups to increase disability awareness, drive joint objectives and help organizations in need.

Matt Starn is a software development engineer at Microsoft
A childhood love of logic puzzles helped set Matt Starn on course for a computer science career.

Born in Santa Barbara, CA, Starn grew up in Ventura. He attended the University of California-LA for two years before transferring to RIT to complete his BSCS.

Immediately after graduating in 2011, Starn, who is deaf, hired on as a software development engineer at Microsoft's Bellevue, WA office. He works in the accounting division of the service industries team for the Dynamics AX product.

"I lucked out and landed an amazing job right out of college, and I'm learning everything I can about the environment, the program and the features we're implementing," explains Starn. "I develop specific features for my team, fix any bugs that come up with the software, and do my best to enhance the product."

Starn came to Seattle in 2007 as a student under a Summer Academy program at the University of Washington. He explored several tech companies and met with other deaf people working in the area.

"Microsoft did the most amazing job with accessibility. I knew I wanted to come back to Seattle after graduation to start my career here," he says. "Most of my previous internships did not provide an interpreter or captioning support when I had meetings. I had to read my co-workers' lips, which is an imprecise science. Microsoft provides interpreters, captioning and whatever we may need, and that goes a long way toward making me comfortable here."

The biggest challenge Starn faces is communication, especially in large meetings. "In these scenarios, I use an interpreter fluent in American Sign Language to translate anything my colleagues say, and then I voice for myself in response," he explains. "If an interpreter is not available, a captionist (someone who listens in over the phone or in person and types out everything that is heard) may be available."

Starn advises students to choose a company that not only fits their career plans, but is also willing to provide the support needed to work in the field.

"It's frustrating to work in an environment where your needs are not being adequately met," he says. "Larger companies may be able to give you the kind of access you're looking for, but don't be afraid to find a smaller company that is willing to put your talents to use and do what it takes to make you a peer among your workers. It's easy to do your best for the company when you know it is doing its best to make your disability a non-issue."

Wright Implement: Small company makes big commitment
Part of Wright Implement Company's corporate mission is to provide a stable and positive work environment for its employees, says Sabrina Evans, HR director. The company, headquartered in Williamsport, IN, has been providing John Deere tractor parts, sales and service for agricultural equipment to customers across the U.S. since 1972.

"We strive to do this for every employee by focusing on their abilities and what they can positively offer the company, rather than their disabilities," says Evans. "By doing this, we can achieve other aspects of our mission statement, such as delivering a quality product and building lasting customer relationships through integrity, honesty and professionalism."

Evans describes IT specialist Blake Berry, who is deaf, as a great addition to the staff of 115 people.

"We try to accommodate his hearing impairment so he feels a part of the company, rather than singled out because of it," explains Evans. "We have purchased specialized telephone equipment, and some of the employees who work with Blake are also taking American Sign Language classes. We utilize an interpreter when necessary so Blake doesn't miss out on company events, and we've installed appropriate safety equipment in case of emergency."

Blake Berry is an IT specialist at Wright Implement
Blake Berry grew up in Rockville, IN and graduated from RIT/NTID in 2010 with an associates in applied computer technology. He began working as one of four IT specialists at Wright Implement's Rockville, IN office right after graduation.

"I am responsible for installing computer hardware and software for the company, as well as maintaining the network drives and printers, and troubleshooting the network," explains Berry. "I chose this company because it is in the heartland, where I grew up."

Berry says he had no difficulty breaking into the tech field, partly because of his strong positive attitude. "I worked hard to overcome any challenges I faced, and showed my employers that I did a good job," he says. "I was able to successfully troubleshoot issues and solve the problems with general computers. I'm doing well and understand my co-workers. Most times, we communicate through email, on paper or I read lips. Sometimes I have an interpreter and support information from the company."

The most fulfilling aspect of Berry's work is the trust he's built with his co-workers and clients. "We work as a team, helping each other. My co-workers and customers are able to approach me and I take responsibility and show I will work hard to make the company successful."

Federal Highway Administration: A commitment to increase diversity
"Hiring disabled employees as well as other underrepresented groups is very important to the Federal Highway Administration," says Lafayette Melton, the outreach and recruitment coordinator for corporate recruitment and career-entry programs at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA, Washington, DC).

"Our vision is to provide the best transportation in the world. In doing so, we make it our mission to provide national leadership. Therefore, FHWA has adopted some core values in order to help us move together as an organization."

As of December 2011, 252 of the FHWA's 3,018 employees were disabled, notes Melton. As part of its ongoing efforts to increase diversity within the agency, particularly with the employment of people with targeted disabilities and disabled veterans, the FHWA attended over fifty-five recruitment events at more than twenty colleges, universities and institutions of higher learning in 2011. The agency also attended events sponsored by professional associations that support populations currently underrepresented at FHWA.

"The agency conducted an annual data assessment and analysis of FHWA's leadership pipeline, which resulted in identifying focus areas for the diversity program," says Melton. "FHWA is hiring and promoting a diverse workforce up through the GS-15 grade level and in the senior executive service. An FHWA diversity committee is exploring the development of comprehensive long-term strategies to improve the diversity of the supervisory and managerial pipeline for FHWA staff in grades GS-13 through GS-15."

The agency also establishes hiring goals for persons with disabilities and continues to develop the agency's disability program website.

"I think the most challenging issue disabled grads face when trying to break into the field of technology is actually the same barrier non-disabled grads face, which is a bad job market," says Melton. "But as technology contributes more and more options for providing accommodations, the more opportunities will appear."

Jason Schwebke is a web apps developer at Aurora Sinai Medical Center
Jason Schwebke grew up in Greenfield, WI and got his associates in information and computing studies at RIT/NTID in 2009. He earned his 2011 BS from RIT in information technology with a concentration in web and database integration.

Today, Schwebke works as a web application developer associate for the Center for Urban Population Health at Aurora Sinai Medical Center (Milwaukee, WI). Aurora is an integrated not-for-profit healthcare provider serving ninety communities throughout eastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. It employs more than 30,000.

"I manage a wide array of web projects, including PeriData.net, a website for more than ninety hospitals about data management on baby birth in the state of Wisconsin," explains Schwebke. His job is to fix any web- and database-related bugs, ensuring that millions of birth records are correct. He also provides on-call support.

Schwebke says he chose Aurora because talented healthcare techies will always be in demand. "Careers in healthcare provide excellent salaries, great benefits and flexible accommodations, including on-site sign language interpreters," he says. "This way, I have a long and bright future without worrying about downsizing. The people I work with are aware of disabilities, and that makes it easier for my deafness to integrate with the work environment."

Because he combined his college studies with part-time jobs working as a web programmer for organizations, Schwebke found it relatively easy to break into his field of choice. "I also studied weekends and weeknights with several programming books and academic assignments and projects, so I became proficient with programming in different languages and managing data in different types of databases."

Schwebke did, however, find it challenging to prove his worth over other strong candidates during job interviews. "My work experiences and wide range of computer skills have always been my strongest qualities. That's the reason I was able to convince them I was capable of the job they were seeking to fill."

Because he is deaf, Schwebke routinely uses sign language interpreters for meetings, and a videophone as his on-call support communication medium.

He advises techies with disabilities to feel confident in their talents. "Don't beg for the job; make employers beg for your skills," he says.

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