Mobility-challenged techies find
Fine jobs in technology are available for those with the skills to get there
IT is a mobility-neutral field that needs good problem-solvers
"My motto is ‘no pity,’” says Joyce Bender, the CEO of Bender Consulting Services (Pittsburgh, PA), an employment company that focuses on creating employment for people with disabilities. Bender hosts a weekly radio show with an attitude. On Disability Matters, she presents her philosophy about full employment for people with disabilities. It’s an outlook that she believes both employers and the people with disabilities themselves need to embrace.
“When I’m talking to college students with disabilities, I tell them, ‘Don’t wait. No magic is going to happen. You have to take the initiative.'
“To hiring mangers I say, ‘Open your eyes to great talent! Look at hiring people with disabilities as a business solution.'”
Bender’s firm has a ninety percent success rate placing people with disabilities in competitive positions in IT, finance and accounting and HR. She works with companies like Highmark Inc (Pittsburgh, PA), WellPoint (Indianapolis, IN) and the National Security Agency
(Fort Meade, MD).
Hiring: an intense process
Brian Durfey has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair
at work. Bender Consulting helped him get his job as an IT helpdesk analyst at WellPoint. He describes Bender’s hiring process as “intense.”
“They’re very thorough,” Durfey says. “They’re not just placing people because they are disabled; they are looking for the best candidates.”
Keen problem-solving skills
Bender, who has epilepsy, opened Bender Consulting Services in 1995. “I thought, ‘What difference does it make if you’re in a wheelchair, or blind and using assistive technology?
You can still do these jobs.’” She estimates that the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is higher than sixty percent. “That is horrifying!” she says.
Folks with disabilities face distinct challenges, and many work very creatively to overcome them. “When you have a disability, you have to be problem-solving all the time. This is an inherent trait we have, and it’s a very big skill to bring to the job,” Bender declares.
AAAS Entrypoint! program helps students find jobs
Virginia Stern is director of the Project on Science, Technology and Disability of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, Washington, DC). She fully agrees with Bender’s assessment.
“Anyone who is disabled, whether from birth, through an accident or progressively, has to develop problem-solving skills,” she says. “These are excellent contributions to the employer.”
Entrypoint! is an AAAS program that works with private and public organizations to find competitive, paid internships for students with disabilities studying math, science, engineering or computer science.
“Forget disability for a minute. Employers have certain skill needs,” Stern says.
“Of course they don’t say, ‘Let’s go out and find someone who’s a wheelchair rider so we have more wheelchair riders in our company.’ They’re looking for people with good academic records in CS or EE or whatever the company needs at that point in time. If a person who has a mobility impairment also has the skills and applies for the job, that’s great all around!”
IT is a mobility-neutral field
Stern notes that the IT field, in particular, has few requirements based on physical ability.
“You have to be able to access a keyboard, of course. But even if you can’t access it with your hands there’s a lot of assistive technology to help you out, like adaptive keyboards and voice recognition,” she says.
Stern wants companies to include people with disabilities in their definition of diversity. Like Bender, she understands the business need and is interested in meeting it with well-educated, well-qualified people.
Doug Allard: Raytheon systems requirement engineer
Doug Allard works with mostly internal customers at Raytheon (Waltham, MA), a leading defense contractor, to develop requirements for IT projects at the company’s cross-business integration center in Billerica, MA. Allard authors requirements, design and test-plan documents based on information from customers and subject-matter experts.
“It’s critical to document and communicate the scope and requirements of a project. It provides boundaries and focus for the project team,” he says.
Once he’s completed the final review of project requirements with the internal customer and project team he works with the Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems information solutions innovation council. The council reviews project requirements to be sure the work is in line with companywide initiatives, and to provide solutions guidance.
In his thirty years with Raytheon, Allard has worked in many capacities and at six different locations. “I’ve stayed here because they have a lot to offer,” he says. “They want you to try different things, and the more you take on, the more you learn. It’s great for both you and the company.”
Allard’s career at Raytheon began after a car accident in 1976. A backseat passenger, he sustained a spinal cord injury and became a quadriplegic.
After a year in recovery and rehab he was released and quickly contacted the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. He told counselors there that he wanted to get a job as soon as possible.
“I was eighteen years old and not knowledgeable about much. I probably should have gone to college at that point, but nobody I knew was going to college so I focused on getting a job.” At the counselors’ suggestion he earned a software developer certificate in Cobol, Assembly language and RPG. He interviewed with several companies, and landed a job at Raytheon.
“I had planned to go into the military and didn’t know anything about the business world,” he says. But Raytheon took him on as a mainframe Cobol developer. He has also worked as a group leader and supported many other Raytheon apps. He started his current job two years ago.
Allard used a manual wheelchair for twenty-six years, but recently switched to a power chair. Every location he’s been assigned to at Raytheon has had automatic door access ready to go when he arrived, he reports.
Raytheon also makes periodic evaluations of Allard’s office environment. The most recent report included a recommendation for a voice recognition program. So far, however, Allard has done all right using a tool to enhance his remaining arm movement when he types and writes. The typing tool is “like typing with one finger,” he says. “But I’ve learned to move along pretty quickly with it.”
Allard notes that people’s reactions to his wheelchair have changed over the years. People used to be a little nervous talking to him, he says. But whether it’s knowing him better, or simply the changing times, interaction is much easier now.
The company has always been progressive in its approach to people with disabilities, Allard declares gratefully. “Raytheon’s been ahead of the game since I first started,” he says. “When I first rolled in the door I saw a poster of a man in a wheelchair receiving an award. That was in 1978. I realize now that was really impressive.”
Jamison Torok: enterprise solutions at WellPoint
Jamison Torok is an IT project manager for WellPoint (Indianapolis, IN), a leading health benefits company. He works in the enterprise solutions delivery department in Mason, OH. Enterprise solutions, he explains, is a bridge for the many business segments of WellPoint, especially important because the company has been through several mergers in the past ten years.
Torok handles projects through concept, development, quality assurance and delivery. “I like seeing something through all phases to the end,” he says.
Torok became a quadriplegic when he was sixteen, but that didn’t stop him from graduating from high school on time or immediately continuing on to college.
In 1999 Torok and some friends were driving back from a rained-out golf outing when their car hydroplaned and crashed. Torok’s C5 vertebra, at the base of the neck, was so severely injured that his movement at first was limited to shrugging his shoulders. “That was a huge reality shock,” he says.
He spent the summer in physical therapy, which greatly improved his movement. He went back to high school in the fall, graduated and went on to Wheeling Jesuit University (Wheeling, WV). He decided to study computer science.
“It was a challenge carrying full credits and then doing physical and occupational therapy, but
I wanted to make things better for myself. I didn’t let the disability hold me back.” He got his BSCS in 2005.
While he was in college Torok interned with the local sheriff’s department, working in an IT support position. After graduating he took a job near Cincinnati, OH, several hours from home.
“I told my parents I needed to get out on my own,” he says. “They were wonderful about it.
It’s gratifying to show them where I’ve been and what I’ve done.” After hours he began playing with the Steelwheelers, a wheelchair rugby team.
He worked in software development with local government for about a year and moved up to team lead, but he wanted to get into the corporate world. He posted his resume on a local IT job board, where a Bender Consulting rep found it and contacted him about a contract at WellPoint. In January 2007 Bender hired him for the WellPoint contract, and WellPoint took him on directly six months later.
Torok uses a manual wheelchair and drives his own car with hand controls. His hand dexterity is limited, so he’s developed his own rudimentary assistive technology: he hits the computer keys with the eraser end of a pencil. “I tell my manager I’m really just trying to keep the pencil industry alive,” he says with a laugh.
He credits WellPoint for its support. The company values his professional skills and is funding his MBA studies and project manager certification. “I really want to recognize WellPoint for giving me the opportunity I was looking for,” he says.
Brian Durfey is helpdesk lead at WellPoint
Brian Durfey is team lead for six technicians at WellPoint’s helpdesk. He works on the harder problems in addition to mentoring and leading his team.
Durfey has cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair, but can walk short distances with a quad cane. “There aren’t many mobility challenges as far as the actual job goes,” he says. “My upper body is pretty much not affected. I have a driver’s license and can drive myself to work.”
Durfey has a 1998 BA in psychology from Indiana University, and completed an A+ IT certification before he graduated.
His first job was with Telamon Corp (Carmel, IN), an IT deployment company. He was a computer support specialist, troubleshooting Internet connectivity. He also provided phone IT support for Telamon’s executive line.
In 2005 he contracted with Bender Consulting, which placed him at WellPoint as a helpdesk technician. Six months later WellPoint hired him as a permanent employee, and he became team lead earlier this year.
Durfey sometimes speaks at meetings about employment inclusivity and his career. “I am very happy to share my experiences, because I may be able to help others who are going through the same situation,” he says. “When they see there are companies that will work with them and view them as assets instead of liabilities, it may help eliminate their fear.”
Amy Roos supports marketing at 3M
Amy Roos, who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia eight years ago, continues to work in marketing at 3M headquarters (St. Paul, MN). She’s a design analyst and technical expert on the corporate 3M.com user experience team. She creates strategy and design for the corporate website and helps teams around the world with troubleshooting.
A recent project is the country homepage redesign. 3M has a Web presence in more than eighty countries, so Roos works with designers in other countries, some of them located in significantly different time zones. “I spend an hour or two every day instant messaging with people around the world who are asking ‘How do you do this?’ and ‘Do you have a solution for this?’” she says.
Roos has a 1994 BS in chemistry from St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN) and completed an
MS in theoretical chemistry at Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) in 1996. Then she
went into IT.
She took her self-taught HTML skills to work as a consultant at various print and Web agencies, picking up skills in basic computer maintenance, Web development and Java as she went. She joined 3M in 1998 as a project leader on a server-side Java-run product catalog Web application. In 2000 she moved onto the corporate marketing team.
“I came in as a Java programmer and found out I’m more of ‘people’ person, not a true coder,” she says. “But my experience in IT has been really helpful. It can be frustrating for IT when marketers propose things that can’t be done, but I understand both sides.”
Just days before she took up the marketing post, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition that causes extreme pain and fatigue. “I had been having severe pain in my hip and trouble walking,” she recalls. The summer before she’d been biking a hundred miles a week; now she could only work ten hours a week because of the pain.
She took nine weeks of disability to optimize her medication and get stable enough to work fulltime again. 3M’s support during those nine weeks was crucial, she says. “Knowing my job was there even though I was gone for a long time made all the difference.”
When she returned to work Roos looked at her schedule and realized she was walking miles around the 3M campus in the course of a normal workday. Working through 3M’s insurance company, she bought a scooter, and uses it to cut down walking fatigue.
Besides her busy job, Roos is active in 3M’s disability advisory committee. The group supports people with disabilities and their families. And they’ve partnered with 3M’s Visiting Wizards,
a group of employees who put on science shows, to visit a local science camp for girls with disabilities. “We have a core of knowledge we share. We help each other and champion causes,” Roos says.
David Chewning protects data at L-3
David Chewning is an IS security officer at L-3 Communications Integrated Systems (New York, NY). He works in Waco, TX. “I handle anything that has
to do with protecting the company’s data,” he says. He’s been doing it for fifteen years.
His job includes reporting security risks and solutions to the Waco IT director, presenting his analyses to company leaders and implementing recommended actions with the IT team. He also conducts monthly vulnerability scans, and serves as the IT rep on transition teams when new businesses are acquired by L-3.
Chewning hadn’t intended to make IT his career or even go to college. He’d started working young, applying for an employment permit when he was thirteen. “I was the youngest person in Virginia to ever get a work permit. I had to go before a judge to get it,” he reminisces.
He moved to Texas in 1984 and opened his own auto repair shop. Four years later his all-terrain vehicle flipped and broke his neck. He became a C5-C6 quadriplegic, and today uses a motorized wheelchair and has limited muscle movement in his upper back, shoulders and biceps and no muscle movement in his triceps or fingers.
After the injury he sold his repair shop. He spent the next five years getting his BSCS from Baylor University (Waco, TX), where he won a presidential scholarship and co-opped with L-3, then part of Chrysler Technologies Airborne Systems.
During the co-op Chewning helped bring in Internet connectivity, configuring the firewall and email systems. From there it was a short step to a regular job as IS security officer.
Chewning still prefers to use as little adaptive technology as possible, but he does have some assistance. “L-3 put automatic doors in, so I just have to wave my badge and they open,” he says. “Round doorknobs give me trouble so L-3 replaced my doorknob with a lever-style handle so I can close it easily if I need to. Anything I’ve needed they’ve taken care of.” To type, he uses a pointer held to his palm with a Velcro wrap.
From the beginning Chewning felt the urgent need to get back to work. Spinal cord injuries mean such a big change, he says. “It was like being an infant again. I’m forty-four now, but it’s like I’m twenty. I worked on cars for eleven years, and then I broke my neck so I had to start all over.”
It’s clear that he did a great job of it. “I think it’s up to the individual. You either push on or you don’t,” he says. “I did.”
Joe Sacco manages projects at IBM
Joe Sacco is a project manager at the San Jose, CA laboratory of IBM (Armonk, NY). He’s in charge of schedules for several information management products delivered in six-month release cycles. “I’m like an event planner, but for a project,” he explains. “I make sure we meet all our deadlines and quality initiatives.”
It’s part of his job to coordinate a multidisciplinary team of developers, designers, testers and marketers to keep software products on schedule. He manages the product all the way through general availability and into enhancement or fix phases afterward.
“The project manager is in charge of everything that affects the product, from the initial conception and user feedback, through coding, testing, packaging and release to market,” he explains. “It’s a good job, great people, and very dynamic, so it keeps me on my toes.”
Sacco received his BSCS from Boston University (Boston, MA) in 1999. In 2002 he completed his MSCS with an emphasis on human/computer interaction and interface design from Stanford University (Stanford, CA).
Sacco has cerebral palsy, and between his BS and his MS he took a year off for two surgeries to improve his mobility. The first helped straighten his legs and lengthen his muscles, and after three months of rehab he had another surgery for scoliosis.
“It was probably the toughest thing I ever did,” he says. “It was much tougher than school or work. But in the end it was one of the best things in terms of long-range benefits. I move a hundred times better than I did before all the reconstruction.”
On the job Sacco uses a walker for short distances and an electric scooter for longer distances around the IBM campus. He sits in a regular chair at a standard desk and drives himself to work every day in an adapted minivan.
“Whenever I’ve traveled for work, they’ve been great about having a personal care attendant go with me,” he says. “They make sure my attendant has access to everything.”
A large company like IBM can offer a lot of support and resources, Sacco says, but in the end it’s still up to the individual. “These days a disability is not the roadblock it once was,” he says. “You can spin it into a positive. You’ve become a problem solver, someone who has dealt with what life has thrown at him. Employers see that and they’re impressed, as long as you also have the credentials.”
What may look complicated can be simple when you take it a step at a time, he notes. “In technology, a bunch of simple bits and bytes combine to do things we never dreamed possible before. And when you take a seemingly insurmountable challenge like living with a disability and break it down into a bunch of smaller pieces, it can be very manageable.”
Chad Lauthers is a Goodyear apps developer
Chad Lauthers works in the Web operations department at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co (Akron, OH). He builds applications for both the internal and external websites and provides end-to-end support through all phases of system specification, development and implementation. One application he works on performs tire selections on the Goodyear website.
Lauthers has always loved computers. “As a kid with cerebral palsy I couldn’t go out and play like my friends did, so I spent a lot of time in front of the computer,” he recalls.
He went on to a 2002 BS in business and CS from the University of Findlay (Findlay, OH) and
a 2006 MSCS with emphasis on software engineering from Bowling Green State University (Bowling Green, OH).
During his last year at Findlay he worked on the Marathon Oil Co (Houston, TX) Findlay office mainframe team. But after he completed his BS he failed to find a permanent job in two years of searching. He kept his spirits and his skills up, attended seminars, and finally decided to go for an MS.
In grad school Lauthers had a Web apps apprenticeship at HCR ManorCare (Toledo, OH), a national medical rehabilitation care provider. He met up with Goodyear at a campus career fair.
Lauthers’ cerebral palsy makes him unable to walk, but he has full use of his arms and hands. “With some people the cerebral palsy is barely noticeable, but with others it is more severe,” he explains.
He uses a power wheelchair and has part-time assistants who work in shifts to help him in the mornings, drive him to and from work and help him at night. He can’t drive, he explains, because he has a slow reaction time.
Lauthers takes advantages of elevators and ramps to get around at work. Mobility, he says, is not as much of a challenge as his stuttering. “That tends to get quite a bit more reaction. People wonder what’s going on,” he says.
Lauthers enjoys the mental rigor of his job. “I like the type of problems where you have to stop and think about a way to solve them,” he says. “I can’t just do things spur of the moment; I always have to think about the best way to do them.”
Irina Smith tests software at Bio-Rad Labs
Irina Smith is a QA software engineer for Bio-Rad Laboratories (Hercules, CA). Bio-Rad makes products for the life science research and clinical diagnostics markets.
Working on a team of six developers and two QA engineers, Smith is responsible for making sure customer needs and regulatory requirements are met. One of her current projects involves software for in vitro diagnostic instruments to detect viruses like HIV and Hepatitis B.
Smith started at Bio-Rad last year. Before that she worked at Roche as a systems engineer. She completed her BSEE at San Francisco State University (San Francisco, CA) in 2002.
She’d always known she would go into medical technology, but her parents, both CEs, had hoped she would be a CE, too. “They were a little disappointed at first, but they’re over it now,” she says with a laugh.
Smith grew up in Bulgaria, where students select their career path early. By the eighth grade she was attending a technical school, and she continued on to university. That’s when she was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
It began with visual problems. “I went to get glasses and they said, ‘Your eyes are fine but there’s something wrong with your nervous system,’” she remembers. Within a few years the disease was affecting her legs, hands and arms. She decided to seek treatment in the U.S. and complete her degree here.
By the time she graduated she was using a scooter indoors, and was naturally concerned about interviewing for jobs. “That was emotional,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘How can I convince them I can work when I can’t walk!’ But companies here have very open minds. Both Roche and Bio-Rad knew I couldn’t walk, and it seems that it didn’t matter.”
At first, Smith says, her colleagues were mostly surprised “to see a scooter zooming around the corner.” But now they consider her an inspiration. Her cubicle had to be adjusted to accommodate her scooter, but that was the only adaptation she needed to work at Bio-Rad.
Although MS is unpredictable, Smith has been stable for two years thanks to a new medication. “Who better than I to appreciate the benefit of medical advancements?” she says. “It’s motivating to know you’re making a difference in someone’s life, just as my new medication has helped me.”
Paul Martinchek is a technical business analyst for Highmark
Paul Martinchek performs preliminary design and QA for Web-based apps that track wellness program users at Highmark, Inc. His responsibilities also include requirements, design and testing for the database that tracks the results of the programs.
Martinchek began at Highmark in 1989 working swing shift as a Cobol programmer. He was placed there by Bender Consulting. After three years he became system administrator for twenty-three hospitals. Then he managed data communications for doctors’ offices in forty-nine counties.
He began his working career as a landman in the oil and gas industry. But he developed problems with circulation in his legs, and in 1976 he was diagnosed with Buerger’s disease, which affects the small to midsized arteries in the extremities. “It got so bad I had gangrene in my toes,” he says.
In 1987 his legs had to be amputated below the knee. But he got fitted with prosthetic legs and quickly learned to walk again. He was motivated by his five-year-old son, he says.
After the amputation Martinchek went through vocational rehabilitation. He attended the Institute of Advanced Technology at the Community College of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh, PA) and studied Cobol for the mainframe.
He met up with Joyce Bender there and was placed with Highmark. Today he’s a Bender Consulting employee on contract at Highmark. “I owe twenty years of loyalty to Bender,” he says. ”It’s a great organization with great people.”
Martinchek doesn’t need any special assistance at work. People don’t usually notice his legs,
he says. “Occasionally someone does notice, and I just tell them I have a bad wheel and keep on going.”
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