New Name, Same Career Focus for Program Preparing Visually Impaired Students for Workforce

As the grant writer at VIA, formerly Olmsted Center for Sight, I know that our greatest reward comes from helping people achieve independent, prosperous lives. Partners like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation have helped us make this a reality for nearly 700 graduates of our vocational training program formerly known as the Statler Center.

In our 20th year of providing career training for blind, visually or otherwise disabled students from across the U.S., VIA helps our students achieve financial independence by offering comprehensive job training in hospitality, food preparation, customer service, telecommunications, and general business fundamentals through both face-to-face and online classes. Through this training, graduates can embark on long-lasting, rewarding careers that empower them to live independently and experience meaningful career success.

Consider the recent success of a Johnson Scholarship recipient, Rebecca Grayson of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Both blind and dyslexic, Rebecca became an online student in her late 20s. As part of her oral communication training, Rebecca had to pick a job posting and practice interviewing for the position. Rebecca did so well in her mock interview that she decided to take the plunge and actually interview for the job. She was offered the position and began work as a doctor’s office assistant.

Statler Center staff member Ray Zylinski teaches Job Access With Speech (JAWS) to a blind student from New York.

Rebecca loves her job and is thankful for the online class that gave her the skills and confidence to become ready to work. As she recently told us, “I am doing great and am really enjoying my job. Thank you again to the Statler Center and Johnson Scholarship for this opportunity!”

Job placement is the primary means by which we measure program success. Nationally, approximately three-quarters of the blind and visually impaired are unemployed, earning two-thirds less on average compared to their non-disabled co-workers. In contrast, approximately three-quarters of VIA’s nearly 700 graduates are currently employed with an average starting wage of $12.68 per hour, significantly higher than the federal minimum wage.

To prepare our students to be successful in their job search and placement journey, we emphasize that investing the right amount of time, self-reflection, and energy into a job search is essential to find a rewarding job. We tell students that each person is a unique puzzle piece. The sides of your puzzle piece are your individual qualifications, skills, strengths, coupled with your ideal location, hours, schedule, and work setting. For you to be successful at work, the company culture must fit you. Past experiences can help you figure what you like and why, and just as importantly what you DON’T like and why. Not everyone is perfect for every job. If you hate being outside and sweating, well then, working in landscaping is definitely not the right job for you. But we all belong somewhere. Once you are honest with yourself about your skills, strengths, and qualifications, you need to find that puzzle looking for one special unique missing puzzle piece – YOU!

Interviews are your first face-to-face experience with a company, and it is true – You only have one chance to make a first impression! Almost all communication (93%) is nonverbal so your gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, and posture are often more important than what you say. The key to answering those difficult interview questions is to positively promote yourself. You need to reframe your answers into “I can if” statements. This reframing builds confidence, which all job seekers need, but especially job seekers with disabilities.

Once offered the job, we teach job seekers how to discuss accommodations and self-advocate. We teach our students to say “My disability is NOT a weakness.” A screen reader is not different than reading glasses used by other applicants. It’s simply a tool that you need for success at work. Working closely with applicants and companies, we help them to understand reasonable accommodations and negotiate logistics like who will cover the cost, how long it will take to install, who installs it, and what is looks like, among other things. Once employers become familiar with the accommodations that our graduates need for success, they are comfortable and ready to get their new employees on board.

By funding education, peer support, on-the-job work experience, access to assistive technology, vocational rehabilitation services, and mentoring, Johnson Scholarship Foundation is giving VIA graduates the skills to succeed!

Becky Landy is a grant writer who comes to VIA with a broad background at not-for-profits, higher education, and corporate marketing. She has taught business communication at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. She has an undergraduate degree from Colgate University and an MBA from Clarkson University. She is a passionate writer who enjoys helping the blind and visually impaired start on their journey to financial independence and a fulfilling life.

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