Tech pros with disabilities find careers they love
“Graduates can join a company that has a history of hiring people with disabilities or they can become pioneers.” – John Macko, RIT/NTID
“Before a job interview, candidates should gather information about what employers can and cannot ask about disabilities.” – Dr Cynthia Overton, AIR
By Claire Swedberg
College graduates with physical disabilities are finding careers in a host of important technical areas. Some do it with sheer independence and perseverance, but help is available.
The American Association for People with Disabilities (www.aadp.com) connects about 13,000 job seekers and college students with employers every year, and hosts events to bring employers and prospective employees together in more than 200 locations annually. The agency also offers job shadowing and mentoring opportunities.
“Even when graduates are qualified for technical positions and have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish in the workplace, they may still face challenges,” says John Macko, director of the Center on Employment (NCE) of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT, Rochester, NY). The center assists deaf and hard-of-hearing students with job searches, and works with employers to connect them with qualified graduates.
“One challenge for the deaf and hard-of-hearing is communication in the workplace,” says Macko. “Graduates have to know what accommodations they need in particular situations.”
According to Macko, graduates have a choice: they can join a company that has a history of hiring people with disabilities, since the company is more likely to have the resources and accommodations needed. Or, if a company doesn’t have such a history, the graduate may expect to become what he refers to as a “pioneer.”
For the deaf, he says, “this may include being responsible for educating and training hearing individuals about communication strategies. That responsibility can be challenging and time consuming, but it does offer rewards.”
Macko adds, “Companies acknowledge that they will draw future employees from a talent pool that includes more disabled individuals, women and minorities. With a diverse workplace, an organization is able to serve the needs of the entire marketplace.”
Be informed and proactive
“Before a job interview, IT and engineering candidates should gather as much information as they can,” advises Dr Cynthia Overton, senior research analyst at the American Institutes for Research (AIR, Washington, DC). “They should know what an employer can and cannot ask about disabilities during an interview, and the process for requesting and securing reasonable accommodations.” Information on legal interview questions can be found at www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/medfin5.pdf, and requesting accommodations is covered at www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html#requesting.
Candidates should also research an organization’s corporate culture to understand how flexible it is in responding to employee needs, she notes. “Use this information, along with a solid set of soft skills, to navigate the process of landing a job that’s a good fit for you.”
Overton herself has had to cope with the effects of a devastating injury that occurred in her twenties during spinal cord surgery. “I was paralyzed after the surgery, but with therapy eventually got back to walking with a cane,” she explains. She still deals with pain, weakness and balance issues.
When she had a problem finding an accessible parking space at her employer’s building, Overton brought the issue to the attention of human resources. The employer created more accessible spaces, and assigned her a protected spot by the door. Her office space was already located near the elevator, restroom and kitchen. “Being proactive about the need for accommodations is really important,” she states.
At AIR, Overton focuses on technology improvements for people with disabilities. AIR is one of the world’s largest behavioral and social science research organizations. Its goal is to use science to find the most effective ideas and approaches for enhancing everyday life. It operates the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center (www.mskt.org). “The center provides a lot of great products that help people with spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury and burn injury understand and live with their injuries,” she says.
Overton is also the deputy director of the Center for Technology Implementation, which is operated by AIR in collaboration with the Education Development Center (www.edc.org) and the Center for Applied Special Technology (www.cast.org), two private nonprofits. The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs.
One of CTI’s products is PowerUp What Works (powerupwhatworks.org), a website that helps teachers use technology to enhance learning for students with and without disabilities. “We’re in the process of field testing the site now,” Overton reports. “It will be ready for full release next year.”
Steven Young is chief information security officer at Kellogg Company
“IT work lends itself to people with physical challenges because it’s about your mind, about your ability to solve problems and create solutions,” says Steven Young, who has been in the technical workforce for more than two decades.
Young joined Kellogg Company (Battle Creek, MI) in 2007 as director of IT engineering. He moved up to senior director of IT solutions, in charge of designing the company’s global network, servers and storage solutions. Today, he’s the chief information security officer for Kellogg worldwide.
By any standards his career is impressive, but Young has done it despite disabilities sustained in a car accident when he was thirteen. His success may be attributed in part to not letting his disability define him. “You don’t want to wear a disability as a badge,” he cautions. “I found that as long as I don’t make a big deal about it, others won’t either.” If he’d known that when he was starting his career, he adds, “there would have been a lot less pressure.”
Young completed his BS in management information systems at the University of Nebraska (Omaha, NE) in 1989. “My degree mixes computer science with business as a way to determine how technologies can be used to enhance businesses productivity,” he says.
Young’s accident left him a quadriplegic, but by the time he started his first job, he had regained enough mobility in his legs to walk slowly, and he had achieved limited mobility in his arms. He enjoyed travel, so he did consulting work until he married in 2000. “Then I wanted something more stable that gave me a better work-life balance,” he says. He joined Lucent (Murray Hill, NJ) as assistant director of global engineering at the Chicago, IL facility.
At Kellogg, Young is responsible for securing the company’s digital assets around the world. He manages a global team with staff in every region, including Latin America, North America, Australia, Asia Pacific, Europe and the U.K. All technology policies, procedures and audits fall under his jurisdiction as well as protection of Kellogg’s digital presence. “It’s a huge, huge honor for me,” he says.
Young walks slower than others, and his hands still have limited mobility, so typing can be challenging. He uses a voice response system on his laptop, which helps with large written projects.
If you’re interested in a technical career, Young advises, “Pick a discipline you love, whether it’s security, networking or computer science, and get as much experience as you can.” He often mentors young people and his advice hasn’t changed over the years: “Have courage. Life rewards the bold. No matter how scared you are, square your shoulders and walk through the door. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Ryan Vlazny is a developer in the Vanguard TLP
Focusing on his strengths has helped propel Ryan Vlazny into the kind of work he loves. He’s a Java developer in the technology leadership program (TLP) at mutual fund company Vanguard (Malvern, PA).
Vlazny is part of a user interface team that works on Java web development for specific web pages. His tasks include writing code, developing features and functionalities for the Web pages, and testing.
He graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a BS in information technology in 2011. “My two IT concentrations were programming and databases, so I was very interested in a programming position,” he says.
He joined Vanguard’s TLP in 2012. It’s a one-year program designed to give newcomers business experience in a variety of professional and technical areas. Participants also attend classes to learn new skills and tools.
Vlazny has Usher’s Syndrome, a condition that’s characterized by deafness, some degree of vision impairment and balance issues. He uses a variety of methods and tools to work around the condition. To help him hear, he has a cochlear implant. His vision impairment causes an additional challenge when it comes to reading sign language so he uses tactile sign language as well. “It helps me understand sign language, better,” he says. Vlazny also uses a smartphone and his computer to communicate with people who don’t know sign language.
“I use the high-contrast mode on the computer and phone, which turns white background and black font into black background and white font,” he explains. He uses a guide cane when walking.
“Vanguard made sure that my desk is set up to meet my needs,” he notes. For example, he has a big monitor that is easy to read. And, he can request Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART), real-time captioning technology that provides a captionist to type what is being spoken for the recipient to read on a laptop. “It’s the equivalent of having an interpreter, but it’s like reading closed captioning on TV.” He uses onsite CART for training classes and large meetings and remote captioning for team meetings.
Teamwork is very important to Vlazny. “It helps you accomplish assignments,” he says. “My team and I use a chat program and a text editor on the computer to communicate with each other in the office throughout the day.”
No matter what your disability is, Vlazny suggests, “You should focus on your strengths and what you enjoy the most in IT. You should also make sure you have the right accommodations to participate fully.”
Doug Giaccone gets internship experience at UTC Aerospace Systems
Doug Giaccone hasn’t finished his undergraduate degree, but he’s already built a strong resume of experience. Most recently, Giaccone interned at the Westford, MA location of UTC Aerospace Systems (Charlotte, NC), a business unit of United Technologies (Hartford, CT). “My internships have helped refine my career goals,” he says.
UTC Aerospace is a supplier of technologically advanced aerospace and defense products for commercial, regional, business and military aircraft, helicopters and other platforms. It’s also a major supplier to international space programs.
As an intern at UTC Aerospace, Giaccone designed parts related to optical equipment for the F15 airplane. He’s on track to receive his BSME from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT, Rochester, NY) in 2014. His first two years were spent at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID).
“I selected this career because I love designing and doing things with my hands that are mechanically oriented,” he says. His particular focus is on automotive and heavy machine technology, and he hopes to use the skills he’s gained at UTC Aerospace in the automotive industry when he graduates.
Giaccone has been deaf since birth. “Luckily, my mom knew sign language before I was born because she was a speech therapist,” he says. Despite being deaf, he’s always been part of the mainstream, whether at school or in the workplace. “I never had any deaf friends until I started attending RIT.”
Giaccone has developed his own coping skills for life in a hearing world. He has learned to be open to hearing people, “and prove to them that I am just like everyone except that I can’t hear.” In high school, he played baseball and launched a sign language club.
Because Giaccone has spent so many years immersed in the hearing world, he requires few special accommodations for the work he does. “I am very independent,” he notes. “I just usually have an interpreter for the first few weeks; then I’m on my own.” He typically communicates through pen and paper, emails, instant message or an iPad, which transcribes voices to text during meetings.
It helps to be tenacious when you have a disability, he says. “Just keep pushing on what you are doing and don’t give up, and ignore any obstacles you might face throughout college. Don’t be afraid to get help, such as tutors. It helps me greatly.”
Giaccone found his UTC internship at an RIT career fair. But there are several national programs for students with disabilities who are looking
for internships in technical areas. One of the most familiar is Entrypoint! (ehrweb.aaas.org/entrypoint), a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The University of Washington’s DoIt program (www.washington.edu/doit) also offers resources, as do a number of government agencies.
The CIA develops employees with disabilities
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, McLean, VA) seeks out talented people with disabilities who want to serve their country, says Todd D. Ebitz, a CIA spokesperson. At the agency, what counts is the ability to perform the job, with or without reasonable accommodations.
“All applicants for employment are assessed using the qualifications for each position that are listed on the CIA’s website at www.cia.gov, and on their ability to protect classified information and use good judgment,” he notes. “We call this the whole-person concept. Every applicant must go through a very competitive process.”
The CIA has a longstanding commitment to its employees with disabilities. Agency resource groups affiliated with the CIA’s Center for Mission Diversity and Inclusion represent the agency’s disabled employees. These groups proactively develop initiatives on accessibility and accommodations and advise the agency’s senior leadership on matters of concern to its disabled community.
According to Ebitz, “The CIA has a dedicated professionally staffed program to help with the determination and provision of reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Recognizing that each individual’s situation is unique, the agency draws on a variety of resources to address needs.
“For young adults who are interested in working for the CIA while they are in school, the agency has a number of opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. The CIA’s student programs are highly competitive and we ensure that all students with disabilities are fairly and fully considered for inclusion. Students interested in the various programs can find information about them on our website,” Ebitz notes.
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