Tech pros with disabilities use creativity to level the field
“People in my situation aren’t looking for a handout; they’re just looking for a level playing field.” – Jamison Torok, WellPoint, Inc
“I feel a duty to tell people how I do things, and this energizes me to flourish not in spite of my disability, but because of it.” – Stephen Dekat, Sprint
By Dan Margherita
Senior Contributing Editor
To companies considering hiring people with disabilities, Laureen Summers says this: “Disabled employees bring a unique perspective and creativity to problem solving that can enhance everyone’s lives. The technology behind wheelchairs is also used by bikers, skateboarders, and parents pushing babies in strollers. People with disabilities have had to solve tons of problems themselves!”
Summers is program manager for Entry Point, the signature program of the Project on Science, Technology and Disability, a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, Washington, DC) that offers internship opportunities in science, engineering, mathematics, computer science and some fields of business for students with disabilities.
“The assumption behind Entry Point was that once employers saw what disabled students could accomplish, attitudes would change,” explains Summers, “and, by and large, this has been the case. Through research, we’ve learned that ninety percent of our alumni have gone on to successful STEM careers.”
Companies including IBM, NASA, Merck, Google, Lockheed Martin, CVS, NAVAIR, Pfizer, Infosys, Shell and Procter & Gamble have supported Entry Point. The Mayo College of Medicine is its newest partner.
“We really get to know the students,” explains Summers. “AAAS advocates for them, helps them with their resumes, and tries to match their skills to the job opportunities they are applying for.”
A plethora of programs
Summers cites other programs that work to help disabled students and workers: the U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Recruitment Program is managed by its Office of Disability Employment Policy; and the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Diversity Management & Equal Opportunity connects federal and private sector employers with college students and recent graduates with disabilities.
The U.S. Business Leadership Network is a national nonprofit that helps businesses drive performance by including people with disabilities in the workplace, supply chain and marketplace. Corporate members include 3M, Cigna, CVS Caremark, Lockheed Martin, McKesson, Verizon and Wells Fargo.
The American Association of People with Disabilities (Washington, DC) offers an internship program to college and grad students, recent graduates and disabled veterans.
Summers also notes that the Department of Labor recently made changes to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1732, prohibiting federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating against individuals with disabilities (IWDs), and requiring affirmative action to include them in hiring and contracting.
The new regulations, which went into effect in March, establish a nationwide 7 percent utilization goal for qualified IWDs. Contractors must conduct annual utilization analyses and assessments and establish actions to address any problems.
Summers admits that there is still a perception that people with disabilities can’t do everything a non-disabled person can do. “Some disabled job applicants have communications difficulties and no matter how stellar the resume, there may be hesitation on the part of the interviewer,” she explains.
“We all grow up wanting desperately to fit into a normal way of looking, thinking and acting. Through no fault of their own, we are sometimes uncomfortable interacting with people who don’t follow that norm.”
Summers tells applicants to prepare a strong resume accompanied by an excellent cover letter that showcases what they can do.
Summers herself has cerebral palsy. “I don’t remember anyone having high expectations for what I could do, and that has become critical in the way I try to mentor interns,” she says. “I make them have high expectations for themselves and move forward with them.”
Robert Willard engineers navy ship parts at DRS Technologies
Robert Willard is a senior software engineer III at tech manufacturer DRS Power & Control Technologies (PCT, Milwaukee, WI).
Willard joined PCT in April as part of the surface ship software team. He works on ship parts for the U.S. Navy and the navies of other countries.
“I’m currently working to provide a lithium ion battery system for a navy destroyer as a backup to their normal power distribution system,” he explains. “I write software for the communications between the battery and our control and data storage systems.”
In summer 2011, Willard was involved in a motorcycle accident that caused him to lose his left leg. “After one bout of ‘How could this happen to me,’ I realized I didn’t like that feeling at all, and I wasn’t going to do that.”
He was on disability for about six months. “Now I have a prosthetic and I’m getting around well. It doesn’t impact my work. The only two differences are that I get the best parking space and a nice footrest at my desk,” he adds with a smile.
Willard was born in Butte, MT, and grew up wanting to be an astronaut. “I used to get up at 3 AM to watch the Apollo liftoffs,” he remembers. Those aspirations changed, and after high school he went to trade school to become an airplane mechanic, but didn’t finish. Then he sought a degree in journalism, but the few opportunities in Montana for journalists weren’t very lucrative.
“In 1977, I had just gotten married, and my wife and I moved to Phoenix where I got a job as an ice cream man. That was actually a pretty good job,” he laughs. “I got to set my own hours and had all the ice cream I could eat!
Finding his fit in EE
“I knew I needed to do something different but I wasn’t sure what.” He went to DeVry Institute of Technology (Phoenix, AZ) and in 1981 earned an associates degree in electronics engineering technology.
He got a job in the Spokane, WA office of Datapoint Corp (San Antonio, TX), and spent a year as a field service engineer traveling in the Northwest fixing computers.
“I moved to Missoula, Montana to set up a field office. By this time, we had just had a baby and I didn’t want to be traveling as much. I also wanted to make more money.”
He went back to school, and in 1984 he finished his BS degree in electrical and electronics engineering technology from Montana State University (Bozeman).
He joined Boeing (Seattle, WA) as a specialist systems and software engineer and stayed for twelve years. From there he moved to GE Medical Systems (Milwaukee, WI), and then to Astronautics Corporation of America (Milwaukee), where he did software testing for cockpit flat panel upgrades on Air Force One. In 1998, Willard joined hydraulic control company Husco International (Waukesha, WI).
Between 2005 and 2008, Willard was out of the job market attending to issues with his elderly parents. In 2008, he went to Johnson Controls, Inc (Milwaukee) as a senior software engineer working with lithium ion battery systems for automotive applications. His position was eliminated in 2013, and he spent a few months at circuit board designer Touchpad Electronics (Mukwonago, WI) before coming to DRS Power & Control Technologies. “It looked like a good company, and that’s what it’s turned out to be,” he says.
“I like the work and I like the people here,” Willard reports. “It’s like getting paid to come and play with high-tech toys all day. I get to work with interesting new technologies and it’s fun.”
Jamie Dewing: technical lead for e-mail systems at L-3 NSS
At L-3 National Security Solutions (NSS, Reston, VA), Jamie Dewing works with a team of twenty-plus members with responsibility for networking, security, helpdesk and more.
NSS provides military and government clients with cyber operations, enterprise and mission information technology, intelligence operations support and operational infrastructure solutions.
“Our team communicates mostly through the internal instant messaging system and by e-mail,” explains Dewing. As an IT systems administrator, he’s responsible for the day-to-day operations, monitoring, troubleshooting, and maintenance of the business unit’s computer/network system, along with network tech support and assistance to other teams.
Dewing is the technical lead for planning, testing, migration, implementing and administration of NSS’s e-mail system.
He has a hearing impairment. “I am Deaf. I have no hearing at all in my right ear, and residual hearing in my left ear with the help of a hearing aid,” Dewing explains.
Deaf vs deaf
He emphasizes the capital “D” when referring to himself. “Deaf with a capital ‘D’ is used differently than deaf, lower case, in the Deaf community,” he says. “The capital letter indicates someone who identifies with the Deaf community, uses American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary language, and considers themselves culturally Deaf. When used with a lower case, it refers to the physical inability to hear.”
Dewing is fluent in American Sign Language and uses ASL at home with his wife, who is a certified sign language interpreter. He feels fortunate that much of his work communication is done by e-mail. He can get along well in one-on-one conversations by reading lips. “However, it’s a struggle for me to keep up during group meetings or telephone conferences. My co-workers will summarize important points to keep me in the loop. However, I do sometimes miss out on details in casual group conversations because I can’t follow each participant in a group discussion.”
Dewing is from the suburbs of Boston, MA. “Growing up, I was more interested in sports and never really thought about IT or engineering,” he remembers. “I didn’t even have a computer at home.”
In high school, he discovered that he really liked working with computers and was good at it. “I decided the IT discipline was a great match.”
He chose to attend Gallaudet University (Washington, DC) because he wanted an in-depth experience in Deaf culture. “Growing up, I attended a regular public school with sign language interpreters, and I never really felt like I fit in,” he remembers. Dewing graduated in 1995 with a degree in computer information systems.
Stepping up the skills
After graduation, Dewing quickly realized just having an IT degree was not enough. At the time, the Certified NetWare Engineer (CNE) credential was in high demand, so he went to a specialized training school to study for his CNE. “That was my first certification, and it landed me my first fulltime career job with Minibar North America (Rockville, MD) as a network and database administrator,” he recalls.
Two years later, he saw that the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification was the hottest new trend. “I got my MCSE certification through self-study, and that advanced my career.”
In 1999, Dewing landed a position with Research Planning Incorporated, now part of L-3, and he’s still there. He is also continuing his education. “Currently, I’m pursuing three new certifications. I want to continue expanding my skill set and keep up with the industry.”
Immersion helps with identity
Dewing appreciates his experience at Gallaudet University. “At Gallaudet, everyone used sign language to communicate. Most professors and staff used sign language, so I was able to get direct instruction without anything being lost in translation. It wasn’t until I got to Gallaudet that I realized how much I had missed out on all those years.”
Gallaudet also opened his eyes to his Deaf identity. “I found a rich culture of people with shared experiences, rich history and a common language. I stopped viewing my deafness as a disability or barrier to success, but as a unique part of who I am. It made me more comfortable in my own skin and, ultimately, gave me the confidence I needed to be successful in my career.”
Darryl Presley builds his career at Oracle
“This past February marked my twenty-fifth year with Oracle,” Darryl Presley says with pride. “I work with a good, solid team of tech professionals who are all team players, and among us we have hundreds of years of knowledge.”
Presley is a consulting member of the technical staff for server technologies development at Oracle (Redwood City, CA). Oracle provides business hardware and software systems to 400,000 customers, including all the Fortune 100, in more than 145 countries. The company works in the cloud and customer data centers, on servers and storage devices, in databases, middleware and end-user applications.
Presley joined Oracle in 1989 as part of customer support. He stayed there for eleven years, learning a lot and “pushing Oracle’s envelope. I was involved in very large customer-based projects, where high availability was a big requirement, but also high performance.”
In 2000, he joined the platform technologies division and internal development organization, where he worked on the Oracle Appliance, which morphed into what is now known as Oracle Managed Cloud Services (OMCS). “I was an architect working on the infrastructure for customers who wanted to have their systems hosted by Oracle, either here or on their premises.”
Today he works with different groups depending upon the nature of the project. “The team in which I currently work, the maximum availability architecture (MAA) team, looks at what technologies we need to develop and what best practices we need to create or publish. We work with product development teams to provide MAA technology and best practices across our product stack, meaning that we look at databases, web servers and application components.”
Growing up legally blind
Presley was born in Oklahoma and grew up in San Diego, CA. “I am legally blind,” Presley explains, “even with correction. My father was in the Navy in San Diego, and the Naval Medical Center San Diego performed some of the surgery to let me see as well as I can.”
He attended San Diego State University, and earned a 1988 BS in computer science with a minor in mathematics. During school, he worked in a student program for the Department of Defense (DoD), located at the Naval Ocean System Center in San Diego.
“We wrote databases for them,” he explains, “using Oracle. I worked there for four years, and we built databases and software for different branches of the U.S. military. That’s how I got introduced to Oracle.”
Enlisting resources for adaptability
Presley uses tools from simple to high-tech as resources in his job. “I use a magnifying glass when I read,” says Presley. “Always have, probably always will. On my computer, there was a time when I was able to use a Windows utility that allowed me to enlarge the virtual window. As later versions of Windows came out, that was harder to do. In 2000, I discovered a product called ZoomText, a magnification and screen-reading software. It’s a transparent application with no hardware required. I’ve used it ever since.”
Presley enjoys the people he works with. “My team is one of the things that keeps me here,” he says. “I plan to stay here. We’re building exciting new products and making existing products even better. Onward and upward!”
Stephen Dekat manages accessibility and SIM card development at Sprint
“The greatest compliment that you can pay to an IT person is no compliment at all,” believes Stephen Dekat, testing specialist I at Sprint (Overland Park, KS). “Just give them a day of peace because that means all their widgets and hamsters are running perfectly. They’ve done their job.”
Dekat was born with congenital cataracts. Surgeries had him in and out of the hospital before he was even five years old. “I’ve been legally blind since birth, and that led me to engineering and IT,” he explains.
“When I was little, doctors advised my family that anything they could do to stimulate me visually or tactically would help my brain make up for my vision problems. My uncle built me a plywood cube lined with tin foil and bright lights, and a light switch on the outside. It became a game to find the switch, then all these lights would come on and reflect off the tin foil. Find the switch and get instant gratification!”
His father was in the financial industry, and Dekat’s family had computers earlier than most. “Some of my earliest memories are of my father teaching me to format floppy disks in DOS.”
He spent afternoons doing simple programming and formatting disks for his father. In fact, Dekat’s father was soon calling upon him for tech support rather than people in his office. “I was developing at the speed of technology. The fire had been lit.”
Dekat attended public school and the Kansas State School for the Blind (Kansas City). When it was time for college, he chose Johnson County Community College (Overland Park), where he earned a 2004 associate of applied science degree in information technology.
A litany of interesting experiences
During school, he worked as a systems administrator for his father’s company, Dekat Financial Advisors. When the company merged with Fortune Financial Advisors (Overland Park), he stayed on to help the company go paperless. Dekat did it so well that by 2006, he had worked himself out of the job.
He went to work in the electronics department of Target in 2007, and was approached by a Computer Troubleshooters franchise owner to become general manager of a franchise. “I said sure, I’d love to give that a shot.”
He ran the franchise out of his apartment and did so well that someone bought it. Dekat moved on to become a tech support analyst at Kansas City, MO advertising agency Gragg Advertising. “That was the wildest rollercoaster I was ever on,” muses Dekat. “I did everything even remotely related to technology. I was the IT guy for a company of fifty people.”
By 2008, Dekat was married and he and his wife wanted to move back to Overland Park. “With a visual impairment, getting around Kansas City is something of a task,” he explains. “Neither of us was happy living downtown.”
He joined Gentiva Health Services (Overland Park) and was a helpdesk analyst for almost three years. “They had 20,000 employees and a unique approach to tech support,” Dekat explains. “Rather than having separate groups of tier 1 people, tier 2 people and so forth, they wanted ten highly qualified, highly motivated individuals who were capable of doing everything beginning to end. I hadn’t felt that kind of adrenaline in a long time!”
The move to Sprint
By 2011, Dekat decided to pursue opportunities working with cell phones. “The technology was evolving like computers were back in the nineties,” he enthuses. “I had no formal training in cell technology, but I landed a job as a tech support contractor at Sprint (Overland Park).”
He started in end-to-end device testing. “I tested power consumption. I tested things like how well the Bluetooth handsets interfaced with the phone, how well the wireless card interfaced with other devices, and more. I got into every facet of testing.”
In 2013, Dekat became a fulltime Sprint employee and assumed his current role. “I’m still technically a testing specialist, but I really don’t test anymore,” he says. “I balance my time between running the accessibility development area and SIM card development, the little chip in your phone with your personal information on it.”
He belongs to the internal Sprint accessibility core team that develops programming to allow visually impaired people to use their cell phones easily.
“I have no complaints,” he says. “I live a blessed existence that allows me to come to work and play with toys. There’s a new one waiting on my desk every morning. There’s a huge difference between working in the IT department of a company that does something else versus working for a company that does IT. The environment here is incredible.”
He adds, “Working on SIM cards feeds my head, but my work on the accessibility team feeds my heart. I want to make cell phones more accessible for everybody, not just people with disabilities. I feel a duty to tell people how I do things, and this energizes me to flourish not only in spite of my disability, but because of it.”
Nora Simmons supports information security for the U.S. Coast Guard
“The challenge I face is educating people, especially in the technology world, that the impaired don’t do things the way those who hear do,” explains Nora Simmons, who is hearing impaired. Simmons is a civilian with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG, Washington, DC).
IT specialist Simmons works in information assurance and risk management in the Coast Guard’s Federal Information Security Management Act branch. She’s responsible for ensuring the confidentiality, integrity and availability of systems, networks and data.
“I provide IT governance and information assurance through the USCG security program, which supports the security of our IT resources and networks,” Simmons explains. “I work with a system development lifecycle workgroup to ensure information assurance activities occur as needed in the correct phase.”
She also oversees IT systems security compliance and ensures information system reliability and accessibility, and prevents and defends against unauthorized access to systems, networks and data.
Simmons grew up in Maryland and attended Prince George’s Community College (Kettering, MD). In 1978, she earned an associates degree in fine art. “I was a graphic arts major,” she explains. “I became fascinated with computer-generated graphics once I landed my first graphic arts position.”
Later, she transferred her credits to the College of Southern Maryland (La Plata), where she studied information technology. “I have never stopped learning,” Simmons says. “I take classes to learn something new or to help me understand my work.” She also participates in mandated DoD and Division of Homeland Security (DHS) training.
Adapting through the years
Simmons has been hearing impaired since she was four years old. At first, she wore bulky transistor-type hearing aids in both ears. She moved to analog behind-the-ear (BTE) instruments in high school, then to digital BTEs. She now uses one digital BTE and has had a cochlear implant in the other ear.
“In school, during the 1960s and 70s, I had a lot of speech therapy, and I was taught to lip-read. I learned by watching people, and I was also educated on alternative ways of learning,” she remembers. “It took time for educators and co-workers to know of my condition and understand how to communicate with me, and me with them. Many didn’t even know I was impaired until someone mentioned it due to my nonresponse to them.”
She utilizes a variety of accommodations. “I have Kurzweil 3000 software and a Hearing Hotspot portable loop amplifier,” she says. “We use e-mail, texting, video, and office tools like Communicator. I also use closed captioning while doing online training, watching videos, television or DVDs. I have just recently started using Hangout on Google+ and Messenger with Facebook.”
Still, there are challenges. Simmons points out that built-in speakers in laptops can be heard through headphones, but people who have hearing aids or cochlear implants can’t use most headphones.
“And since we’re in cubicles instead of offices, everyone else in our space can hear speakers if I use them without headphones. I had to coordinate all my resources to come up with a device that would work as speakers. Since I work in security, the device couldn’t involve a flash drive or be Bluetooth-enabled.”
The path of a tech pro in government
Simmons has worked in several branches of the U.S. government. “In 1975 I landed my first government position as a clerk with the Department of Housing. I was a part-time, stay-in-school employee. Once I graduated, I was hired full time by the United States Secret Service in 1979 as a graphic artist. I also learned photography.”
In 1978, Simmons married and started a family. In 1981, she became a stay-at-home mom for nine years. She then joined the Coast Guard as a graphic artist, but during the 90s her position was downsized. She moved to headquarters as the USCG secure telephone and backup communications security custodian. “That job allowed me to learn all about computers and digital technology.”
In 1998, Simmons became an information system project manager in the office of enterprise application management. Today, she uses her project management skills to implement National Institute of Standards and Technology risk management framework processes for the Coast Guard.
Simmons is working toward certifications for information assurance. “When I was doing project management, I had a level I DHS acquisition certification as a project/program manager,” she explains. “In information security, there are competencies for each category and level. I’m currently working on my certified authorization professional certifications. They will validate my competency, skills and knowledge within my area of expertise.”
Simmons enjoys learning and finding solutions, as they relate both to her hearing loss and her job responsibilities. “I like seeing how things work together,” she says enthusiastically, “especially with technology, people and business. It’s a challenge to create tools that help all kinds of people work better and more effectively.”
Ryan Williams: a remote PhD from USC Viterbi School of Engineering
In 2005, Ryan Williams graduated summa cum laude from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech, Blacksburg) with a BS in computer engineering and, after staying on to complete a grant project, began work on his PhD. In 2018, he graduated from the University of California’s Viterbi School of Engineering (Los Angeles) with his PhD in electrical engineering and a focus on undersea robotics research.
What happened in between is a study in determination and spirit.
A young builder and problem solver
“I was interested in engineering from a very young age,” Williams says. “I was always building and solving problems. My mom told me I was going to be an engineer. My grandfather has a masters degree, and my mom has a PhD in analytical chemistry, so there is an academic strain going through me.”
Virginia Tech was an easy choice for Williams. Close to his hometown of Roanoke, the school has a strong engineering program, and his mother got her PhD there and loved the school.
He co-oped at nuclear engineering firm Framatome (now part of Areva), where he worked on robotic engineering projects at nuclear power plants. “They were just developing this technology, and I was involved in hardware and software development. I was lucky to be involved in something so cutting-edge at so young an age.”
When he left Virginia Tech, however, Williams went straight for the PhD. In 2006, he headed for California and USC.
A life-altering event, a steady academic course
In January 2008, Williams broke his neck while diving into the water at Santa Monica Beach. He is now a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down except for some limited movement in one arm.
After the accident, Williams was treated at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, GA. “I was there for three months of extremely intensive rehab,” he recalls, “and then I came home to Roanoke. I’ve been here ever since.”
He was able to finish his PhD program through USC’s distance education network, DEN@Viterbi. The program makes it possible for students from around the world to participate in its programs.
“DEN@Viterbi was a support system and a connection to my coursework,” Williams explains. “All my research was done remotely. Since there was no way for me to go into a lab and physically work on a robot, I turned to theoretical research and simulations. That’s easier to do at a distance.”
Accommodating a unique situation
“Ryan’s case was unique,” says executive director of DEN@Viterbi, Binh Tran. “We worked with him and his dissertation chair to make sure his courses and the interactivity between him and members of his Viterbi community were supported.”
Tran explains that DEN@Viterbi brings together students globally. “We have many overseas students. USC collaborates on new programs with international companies and universities. Online students and partners have many different ways to connect to the classroom and other students, including mobile devices.”
Passionate about robotics
“I feel really lucky to be vested in robotics,” says Williams. “I work on multi-robot systems, and how robotic systems interact and collaborate. The future will see teams of robots doing things that benefit humanity in a real way.
“An obvious example is military operations where drones work with human soldiers, but another example is environmental monitoring. There are aquatic robots that monitor our oceans. My lab deploys surface and underwater aquatic robots to study algal blooms off the coast of California because these blooms can have a large ecological impact. The robots do amazing work.”
Williams says enthusiastically, “This is a new paradigm. Working on high-level research completely remotely is completely feasible, not pie-in-the-sky. I’ve worked in labs for a long time and they are able to create the experience with an amazing amount of fidelity. It’s doable, and I’m evidence of that.”
Williams not only finished his degree, but also made the trip back to Southern California this spring for graduation.
“I will stay on for another year as a post-doctoral researcher,” he says. “I’ve been remote for the past five years, even through the actual hardcore research portion of my dissertation, and I will continue to work remotely as a post-doc.”
Williams and his advisor are talking about ramping up his involvement in the lab. “We’ve been talking about ways to be more inclusive. I’ll be leading a team of masters and PhD students in the lab for about a year.”
He has determined that academia is “absolutely” the path he wants to take. “It suits my personality really well, and logistically it has the greatest possibilities for flexibility in what I want to do.
“I have some ideas and I have some dreams,” Williams says, “and we’ll see where those intersect.”
Frederick Frayer writes automation programming for Verizon
The irony of his situation isn’t lost on Fred Frayer. “I am the son of an ophthalmologist,” he explains. “My father William Frayer was one of the founders of Scheie Eye Institute. Scheie is recognized internationally as one of the finest institutions of its kind.
“I have retinitis pigmentosa, and became legally blind when I was thirty-three years old,” Frayer says. “But my father always told me, ‘Whatever you do, the pursuit of excellence is really what matters.’ That principle still guides me.”
He is an engineer III specialist in network engineering and operations, working in trunk integration record keeping system (TIRKS) automation and metrics at Verizon Communications in Philadelphia, PA, a branch of global broadband and telecommunications company Verizon (New York, NY).
“I’ve always been told that TIRKS is the largest information system outside the Pentagon,” says Frayer. “It’s basically a database record of every circuit in the non-residential network. It knows where every wire and fiber goes from central office to central office.”
Frayer writes programs that automate the TIRKS mainframe system. His group is a small group within network engineering. “We partner with a lot of the IT groups for a variety of interfaces, and my primary responsibility is to handle and maintain those. We provide value to the sales teams that are out working with customers. They aren’t technical people so, for example, when a bank wants to add an ATM, we design the dedicated circuit that’s required.”
A start in the arts
Frayer didn’t start in technology. Born in Philadelphia, he was always passionate about music. He earned a BA in music from Colby College (Waterville, ME) in 1980. “My original plan was to teach,” he remembers, “but at the end of my student teaching, standing on a podium conducting the Waterville High School band, I wondered, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’”
He returned to Philadelphia and attended Drexel University, where he got his MS in arts administration in 1985. Frayer worked for several arts organizations in Philadelphia. “But being close to the arts isn’t the same as being in the arts, so I began looking for career alternatives. Also, my eyesight began to fail and my prognosis was uncertain, so I thought it would be wise to choose a blind-friendly career just in case.”
Through career counseling, Frayer discovered his strong aptitude for information systems work. “In 1989, I found a great program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Information Resources,” he says. “It was an intensive nine-month computer programming course for physically and visually disabled people.”
His primary interest had always been telecommunications, so he went to Bell Atlantic in 1990. Frayer spent ten years as a programmer in IT billing systems. He moved into Verizon network engineering in 2000 and has been there ever since.
“I like being a programmer,” he says enthusiastically, “because every day is different. I want to continue to improve and build up my skills. This is really what I love.”
Adapting and accepting
Today, Frayer works from home and uses Window-Eyes screen-reader software.
Thanks to his ophthalmologist father, he’s had access to some of the best eye doctors on the East Coast. He has been told there are encouraging possibilities to improve his condition through gene therapy, but Frayer does not think about that much.
“I learned a long time ago not to spend my life wishing and hoping,” he says. “It takes a long time to resolve these things so if it happens, great, but in the meantime, I plan my life as though it’s not going to.”
Program director Jamison Torok: end-to-end execution and delivery at WellPoint
Jamison Torok was born in Wheeling, WV and grew up in the foothills of Appalachia. “I had a normal kid lifestyle and played sports, but I’ve also always been good with technology.”
Since 2007, Torok has worked in the Mason, OH office of health benefits company WellPoint, Inc (Indianapolis, IN) as a technical program director. He works in end-to-end execution and delivery for WellPoint’s consumer and employer applications, known as channel systems.
“Channel systems are the applications that consumers use to access their healthcare,” he explains. “These may be an app on their mobile devices, a web portal on the Internet, or something more traditional like an inbound voice call. That’s the technology I work in.”
Accident firms his technology path
When he was sixteen, Torok suffered a spinal cord injury in an automobile accident, leaving him a quadriplegic. With intense rehabilitation and a strong sense of commitment, he graduated with honors with his high school class two years later.
“The accident actually drove me even more toward a technology path,” he reflects. “I knew if I went into technology, even if I didn’t rehab well, I would be able to do that and do it well because I had a good head on my shoulders. When I got hurt, I could barely shrug my shoulders, but I knew if I worked with computers, I could work on software and products like that. I wasn’t going to let my injury hold me back from getting a good education.”
He continued rehabilitation while attending Wheeling Jesuit University and earned a BS in computer science with a minor in e-commerce. During school, he interned at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department doing data integration.
“I got to work with the federal criminal justice agencies that work with the FBI. The sheriff’s office gave me a list of things that needed to be worked on, and I developed solutions.”
Fortuitously, right after graduation, Torok was in Hawaii and met someone who worked at Butler County information services in Ohio. “It was similar work to what I had been doing before,” he remembers. “It was my first big job.”
He worked there for almost two years when he got a call from Bender Consulting Services (Pittsburgh, PA), which works with employers to recruit people with disabilities for professional positions. “Bender doesn’t put you in a situation where you’re going to have this job just because you have a disability. When I interviewed at WellPoint, I told the interviewer I hoped he wasn’t interviewing me just because I’m in a wheelchair. He wasn’t.”
Leadership on many levels
Torok joined WellPoint in 2007. He worked first as a project coordinator and then project manager before moving into his program director role in 2013.
“Now I’m more involved with strategic planning, execution, production operations, process improvement and best practices. I don’t touch everything like I used to, so I have to trust the people around me and be sure they can trust me.”
In 2010, Torok completed his MBA in information systems management from Indiana Wesleyan University (Marion).
Torok has served as a co-chair of WellPoint’s associate resource group for people with disabilities, Abilities Beyond Limited Expectations (ABLE), for almost five years. He also serves as the Mason, OH site captain for young professionals group HYPE (Healthcare Young Professional Exchange).
He’s excited about the work WellPoint is doing, a lot of it involving healthcare reform. “Becoming a program director not only advanced my career,” Torok says, “it also got me into consumer-centric healthcare. As someone with a spinal cord injury, you want to be proactive and drive your own benefits. If the technology is there for consumers, it makes it easier for them to control and participate in what they do. You need accessibility and usability. Hopefully, our products and technology will be able to make that happen.”
He concludes, “People in my situation aren’t looking for a handout; they’re just looking for a level playing field.”
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