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Selling Your Skills

Winning approaches to the job search for engineers with disabilities

By Tony and Alison Martinez

"You're about to embark on an exciting time in your life-the beginning of your professional career," Joseph Sacco says. "Have a good time during your job search, and don't worry!

Joseph Sacco

Joseph Sacco, Software Engineer IBM

"You've already proven that you can handle whatever life throws at you. You've learned to live with your disability. You've learned to work with different kinds of people. You've learned to work under pressure. You've shown that you can see something through to the end, because you've earned an engineering degree. That's a big achievement. Not everybody has a degree. Congratulations on that work!

"Go out into the workforce with peace of mind, because no matter what comes up, you can handle it."

Sacco knows whereof he speaks. He has cerebral palsy. He uses a walker for mobility indoors and an electric scooter outdoors. And he's a software engineer with IBM.

"There will be obstacles and difficulties, but you have the skills to handle them," Sacco says. "There will be days when you've got a dead-line and your personal attendant sleeps in and your scooter breaks down and the elevator isn't working, and you may think: This is horrible-but it happens. It's no different for anyone else. Don't get discouraged. Trust me, you'll look back in a couple of months and laugh."

For Sacco, a campus job fair led him to an interview, which led him to an employment offer, which he ultimately accepted. But this good outcome didn't happen by chance. The young IT engineer had been building a solid resume for years before the day of the job fair, culminating with an internship at the very company where he is now happily employed.

"I specialize in user-centered computer interaction and interface design," Sacco explains. "We want to make sure our products are satisfactory to all our customers, whether they have a disability or not.

"I would say the best part about this job is the people-working with the best people in computer science. An internship is like a test drive. If the company likes what they see, and they realize you've got the skills, then they probably will stick with you," Sacco explains. "It's your chance to make it or break it. But if you don't show them anything, there's a good chance you will not be invited back."

Sacco's colleague, Nguyen Phan, emphasizes the same point. "You have to grasp every opportunity that comes your way. It doesn't matter whether it's small or big. You can't say, 'I'm not going to do this because it's not going to get me anywhere.' You don't know that."

Entry Point

Phan was born in Vietnam and came to the United States when he was 10 years old. As a software developer at IBM, he writes software for mainframe computers using voice activation software because spinal muscular dystrophy limits his finger dexterity.

Nguyen Phan

Nguyen Phan, Software Developer

"My university had helped me get a co-op job at another IBM site," Phan explains, "I was working hard, doing my job as a co-op the best I could, and I was I looking and looking for a permanent job. I kept putting in applications. When I got the interview for this job, I think my co-op manager put in a good word for me.

"I had never worked on a mainframe before I got this job, so it's all new to me, and I love it. I love the challenge of learning as I go, and learning to work with a bigger circle of people.

"My new manager is super. She's very accommodating and really looks out for the people who work for her."

Each learning and working experience you have helps will help to build your skills base and your resume. Those experiences will prepare you for each new career opportunity as they develop. Phan recalls, "The first internship that really made my resume look good was the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) internship that I got through Entry Point."

Entry Point is a program sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is the nation's oldest and largest general science organization. The program offers quality internship opportunities to undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities. Eligible majors are science, engineering, mathematics, computer science and some fields of business. Internships are available in public agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation, as well as leading corporations like IBM, Texas Instruments and JPMorganChase.

"We assist our partners-the companies where we place interns-in finding some of the top students," Entry Point's Latasha Morgan explains. "We've been in operation since 1996, so we're getting to be known and colleges refer students to us. We also go to the schools on recruitment visits.

"All students with disabilities are more than welcome to apply to us directly via our Web site, www.entrypoint.org. Of the college students we select and place, 92% either go on to graduate school or get permanent positions in the technology field," Morgan adds.

Getting a Lift

Ronald P. Kozberg, executive vice president of Lift, Inc. (www.lift-inc.org) a national placement service for people with disabilities says, "The hardest part of the whole placement process is getting the job, so we get the hardest part taken care of first. We get the job, and then we get the person.

"When we have the person and the job, if necessary we prepare the person to qualify for the job-but we don't train just for the sake of training. Most agencies train, and then they place. We find a position-get that headache out of the way first-and then train as needed for the purpose of employment only," he explains.

Recent placements include a blind programmer, a deaf programmer, and a person who "just graduated from school, and he's probably one of the first people placed out of his graduating class. He's in a very high level position with a major corporation in Silicon Valley.

"The level of the position in which the person is placed is based upon their training and experience," Kozberg continues. "Junior people may receive training lasting up to six months, and then be placed in our apprenticeship program. Even experienced professionals will participate in our apprenticeship program, at a salary commensurate with their experience and education.

"In our apprenticeship program, individuals work for Lift under contract to the major corporation where they are placed. For an apprenticeship, we have an agreement with the company for one full year of employment, and the employee has a one-year, full-time commitment from us.

"The program lets us make sure that any work-related problems are remedied with the assistance of Lift prior to direct employment. We make sure that a great career starts off on the right foot.

"It's pretty simple to apply to Lift," Kozberg notes. "All you have to do is send us a resume. If the applicant seems to have potential, we contact them and arrange for them to take our aptitude test. Before we place someone we get to know the person thoroughly by talking to them and to previous employers, instructors and friends. We're looking
for high aptitude, well-founded self confidence and professional expectations."

What makes an applicant stand out? "Show flexibility, a positive attitude, and a high level of intellectual energy," Kozberg advises. "Those are the elements that we and the companies we work with are looking for."

How does an applicant demonstrate a positive attitude? "It's how you answer a question. It's the I can and I will statements. The interviewer might say, 'You're not really trained to do this.' But you answer, 'I can learn that very quickly.'

"If you don't feel you're qualified for the job, you're not going to be able to fake an employer. You have to know that you're qualified for the job and pursue it in that way."

Attitude Is Key

IBM's Sacco agrees that a positive approach is crucial. "These days if an employer sees you at a job fair and sees that you have some skills, an impressive resume, plus you have a disability-if they see that by your very nature you're tenacious, you're a problem-solver, you're enthusiastic, you have a positive attitude-I think you can walk out of that job fair with a handful of business cards that will lead to interviews," he says.

He urges job seekers to examine their attitude frankly. "What kind of personality do you have? Are you one of these people with a disability who has a negative attitude, a chip on their shoulder? One who feels that other people owe them something because they somehow got shortchanged? Or do you have a positive attitude that life is full of challenges, everyone has their own challenges, and I'm going to take what I have and make the best of it? This disability is only one piece of who I am. It's not the entirety of who I am. I give the disability the attention it needs, but I make sure that it never becomes a larger part of the whole picture than it should be."

Software for the Blind

A great way to get further advice on how to achieve career success while living with a disability is to link up with other like-minded professionals who are also living with disabilities.

"It's just good sense to get acquainted with professional people in your field," suggests Lorraine Rovig, technology specialist with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

"When you are using alternative techniques, it makes good sense to join one of the NFB's national divisions, which are full of professionals who know the work around you needs to be competitive with your sighted coworkers."

Blind people with expertise in science and engineering are invited to join the NFB Science and Engineering Division (jmiller@ucsd.edu), which is a support group that encourages blind people to pursue science and engineering careers-in the past often considered impossible for blind people.

In contrast to organizations of sighted persons that seek to help the blind, the NFB comprises 50,000 blind people speaking and working for themselves and each other. The NFB Research and Training Institute, which opened in January 2004, undertakes research, evaluation, demonstration and training with the world's largest ($2 million) collection of technologies that are of value to blind users.

The U.S. Labor Department's redesigned USAJOBS Web site has been very popular with jobseekers in the general population (59 million visits and 637,000 resumes created in the first 11 months.) Unfortunately, it has not been readily accessible to blind and dyslexic jobseekers. "Even if you know very well how to use a computer to search a Web site, job banks have hundreds of links," Rovig explains. "It's inefficient to do it by hearing, by speech output or by Braille."

The NFB is determined to make the computer service usable by the blind. "We came up with software that not only lets a person research jobs on the USAJOBS Web site by telephone, but also lets you create and send an electronic resume using the telephone alone," Rovig reports.

You don't have to be blind to use Jobline. Sighted people who are away from their computers like the free service, too. As we go to press, Jobline is available in 26 states. (Visit www.nfb.org for updates and details.)

Leading the Way

IBM sponsors diversity networks for employees in various categories, including racial minorities and people with disabilities. "I started the San Jose area group for employees with disabilities this year," Sacco reports. "We call it GLIDE (Group of Locally Involved Disabled Employees) and I would encourage any of your readers to contact us at jsacco@us.ibm.com.

"We're a great resource for those who are just starting off, because we have a cumulative knowledge bank," Sacco continues. "Among us we've got a lot of different disabilities. A newcomer can look at us and say, 'You look like me; I have a feeling we've been through some of the same things; can you help me out?'

"Everyone with a disability has had to overcome most of the same stuff, right? We have to be willing to help each other out. We can say, 'I figured that out a year ago, so let me tell you what I did that worked for me. You can take it or leave it, but let's not reinvent the wheel-let's save time, energy, effort and stress.'"

Sacco believes that "The people who are graduating now have a responsibility to younger people with disabilities to be positive role models and to start leading the way.

"There's a responsibility once you've reached a certain point to look back and say, 'I did it; so can you.' Very soon will come the point where you're ready to start mentoring. Think about how you can give back to others with disabilities. You can be a role model for younger people with disabilities in high school or middle school who are wondering, 'Am I going to be able to live on my own and have a productive and rewarding life?'

"Remember, there are a lot of people with disabilities who would like to be where you are. Maybe they didn't have the opportunity to get that degree. Maybe they have a more severe disability that hasn't allowed them to achieve what you have. So remember how fortunate you are."

Sacco emphasizes that people with disabilities must show a positive attitude precisely because employers so often expect to see a negative attitude. "If you prove them right, it's going to damage your chances and the chances of others who come after you. So you've really got to prove them wrong." A positive attitude helps you get the job, and-win or lose-helps the next applicant with a disability get a fair chance, too. "If you make a positive impression, the next applicant who comes in with a walker will start out further ahead than you, because the employer doesn't have negative impressions or hesitations."

IBM's Phan sums it all up: "Through experience I've found that you don't always get what you want in your first shot. You have to show a lot of determination. Nothing comes easily, especially when you have a disability. Don't be afraid to fail, because if you don't try, you don't know how far you can go. The most important thing is not to give up."

Tony and Alison Martinez are writers based in Santa Fe, N.M. Tony's disabilities don't keep him from being an activist for organ transplantation. Alison has worked in personnel management and the independent living movement.

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