Eileen Levin was having a difficult time with her job search. Recruiters liked her and were impressed by her background in the sciences. But Levin realized they were intimidated by the technology she would need on the job: a Braille display monitor and a speech synthesizer.
"That was very frustrating," Levin says. "As a prospective employee, it's challenging to talk about these issues. You're depending on guidance from the company, and it feels awkward."
Introduction to Lift
Levin wondered whether IT skills might help her find a new career direction. A rehabilitation counselor told her about Lift, Inc (www.lift-inc.org, Warren, NJ). Since 1975, this small, national nonprofit has trained, hired and placed people with disabilities in information management positions with more than eighty corporate clients.
Lift grads are holding down important jobs as programmers and Web developers, systems analysts, business analysts, technical engineers, technical writers, graphic designers and more.
"Because of offshoring and industry maturity, few entry-level IT positions currently exist in this country," says Lift president Donna Walters Kozberg. "Employers want experienced applicants, and our rigorous candidate qualification process and excellent track record attract corporate clients. We can find them individuals with high potential, even though they're not yet able to compete in the résumé game."
Lift trains the candidates it accepts in technical and business skills, if needed. Then it hires them on itself, and sends them as contractors to its corporate clients. Contract work is followed, in most cases, by permanent placement.
The clients agree to give the Lift contractors a yearlong apprenticeship. The contractors have a year to prove themselves, and the employers have a risk-free opportunity to see how well they do. As the year concludes, most clients are happy to offer their Lift apprentices direct employment.
Support in all phases
Lift staff supports both workers and clients at all phases of the process, from interviewing through issues of placement, accessibility and accommodations.
In Levin's case, Lift started her with an individualized six-month training program in Visual Basic and database applications. Then it hired her, and contracted her out for Web development projects at Verizon Wireless (Bedminster, NJ). Lift worked closely with Verizon Wireless to evaluate Levin's needs for assistive technology.
Administrative manager Adrienne Sherman explains that a Lift counselor will visit the worksite with the employee to ensure accessibility. "We talk about technology needs and preferences and do an assessment."
It all worked out very well, and in 2000 Levin became a permanent employee at Verizon Wireless.
Breaking down barriers
Lift breaks down employment barriers through education and continual monitoring of employees' progress. "We often find ourselves training the employers to be comfortable with their employees with disabilities," Kozberg says.
"The people we bring into the Lift program are ambitious and very talented. It's our goal to get them functioning on the job at their personal best."
Interning at IBM
"One of the most successful ways IBM recruits talent is through our internship programs," says Millie DesBiens, IBM's program manager for global workforce diversity. "This is especially true for candidates with disabilities."
IBM has been working with Lift since 1998. "We are very pleased with the program and have hired six outstanding employees from Lift," DesBiens notes.
Wayne Sholtes, customer support manager at IBM in Raleigh, NC, has two Lift graduates in his WebSphere apps development department. "These are incredible people, very bright, knowledgeable and fun, with excellent communication and people skills and good at diagnosing problems," he says. He notes he's always happy to consider Lift applicants.
A better job for Wenshih SuWenshih Su uses crutches as the result of polio. He came to the U.S. from Taiwan, earned an MSEE and started work as a programmer for a New Jersey software developer, but job pressure and threats of downsizing and layoffs were constant, he says.
Su applied to Lift, where the staff determined he'd be a good match at Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Networking & Computing Services (Raritan, NJ). After he interviewed for a job there, interviewers were so impressed that they offered him a better job than he'd come for. He was hired in 2005 as technology lead in networking and wireless design.
Telecommuting for Robert O'ByrneKozberg notes that Lift was one of the first companies ever to have programmers working from home. The technology barely existed in 1975 when Lift was founded, but Lift made it work. Telecommuting was especially important in those pre-ADA days because so many office buildings and transportation systems weren't accessible to people with disabilities.
Robert O'Byrne, a quadriplegic who lives in New Jersey, has been telecommuting to New York Life (New York, NY) for twenty-two years. He had taught himself Basic before joining up with Lift. Lift placed him at New York Life where he learned programming in PL1 and Cobol. Before the Internet came along, he accessed the company's mainframe via a dumb terminal and leased data line.
O'Byrne is now a Web programmer and database developer specializing in Lotus Notes. He enjoys product development, problem solving and mentoring younger workers. The phone rings constantly, and O'Byrne couldn't be happier.
"People in my situation can't do it alone," O'Byrne says. "Everything came together at exactly the right moment."
Tool for rehabilitation
Brian Fitzgibbons is assistant director of the New Jersey Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, part of the state's Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Back in the '80s he was O'Byrne's vocational rehabilitation counselor, analyzing his client's workspace and obtaining modified equipment for him, which was financed by the division.
Today, Fitzgibbons makes sure Lift is prominent on his counselors' radar screens. He considers the organization an important tool for rehabilitation counselors.
Lift stays in touch with its graduates through annual surveys and informal calls. "Lift prepares you to resolve on-the-job issues independently," says Eileen Levin. "But it's good to know that they're always there as a sounding board."