Now more than ever, people with learning and visual disabilities are flourishing in the classroom, launching productive careers and becoming assets in their communities. This blog spotlights remarkable individuals who demonstrate that having a visual or print disability is no barrier to educational success.
December 3, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio
Compiled by: Katie Ottaggio, CSP Engagement Operations Manager
Each month the College Success Program hosts a webinar on a topic of interest to high school and college students who are blind or who have low vision, their parents, and the professionals who work with them. This fall we are taking on the ways in which COVID-19 has altered the landscape for students in all facets of life: academic, personal, and professional. On November 18, 2020, the CSP rounded out this three-part series with a webinar on how COVID-19 has changed the professional landscape for college students and new graduates seeking internships or employment. CSP Mentor, Caitlin Mongillo, interviewed Breandan Ward, Adjunct Assistant Professor at NYU Wagner and Certified Leadership Coach, Khadija Bari, Student Career Coordinator at VISIONS/Services for the Blind & Visually Impaired, and Samantha Stephens, President & Director of First Job Austin.
In case you missed it, here are the top takeaways from this informative webinar. You can also view this webinar in its entirety by clicking here.
To read the top takeaways from the 1st webinar in this series - Navigating an Online Coronavirus Landscape: College Academics - click here. You can view the recording of this webinar here.
To read the top takeaways from the 2nd webinar in this series - Navigating an Online Coronavirus Landscape: College Social Life - click here. You can view the recording of this webinar here.
Opportunities aren't limited in your home office.
COVID-19 changed the plans of many, particularly college students preparing for summer work and internships. As companies began moving to virtual landscapes, students had to become creative and adaptable as internships and jobs were made remote, delayed or cancelled all together.
The first factor in the internship landscape to change was the shift to working from home. There are some positives to this, including no longer having to travel to a workplace or being geographically limited, so opportunities across the country are now viable options.
Here are some websites where you can find internship and volunteering opportunities:
Start creating positive habits and stick to them.
As tempting as it is to sleep in, stay in your pajamas and binge watch your favorite show for days at a time, you aren't doing yourself any favors in a professional sense. Some day you may need to go into a physical office setting, so it's good to get into habits now that will prepare you for that, and will also make you feel more productive and motivated in the meantime.
Set your alarm, get up, shower, brush your teeth and get dressed. The simple act of wearing normal clothes will help you feel more business-like and ready to tackle your job hunt or internship responsibilities.
Set reasonable guidelines for yourself when job hunting.
Looking for a job can be daunting, overwhelming and sometimes heartbreaking. Consider setting guidelines for yourself to follow each day of your job search. An example can be to set a timeframe each day, say 3 hours, Monday through Friday, and aim to submit 3 applications each day. Then, even if you haven't made your goal but you know you've worked hard during those three hours, let yourself go. Don't pressure yourself to submit as many applications as possible or job hunt during all the waking hours of the day. Incorporate fun or rejuvenating things to do into each day so you have something to look forward to.
"LinkedIn is your brand."
Consider LinkedIn to be your brand, a representation of who you are. So, you want it to be good, right? Make sure it's up to date and accurate.
Network until you can't network no more!
Use LinkedIn to connect with everyone you know. Maybe your high school music teacher's neighbor's car mechanic's brother-in-law is looking for an intern. The point is, you never know where an opportunity will come from until you connect with that teacher, neighbor, car mechanic, or brother-in-law on LinkedIn. People want to help, so make sure you reach out and ask for it.
Consider making a spreadsheet of everyone you've ever know - family, friends, roommates, neighbors, former camp counselors, your hairdresser, former scout master, your 5th grade teacher, the neighborhood barista, etc. Track them down via LinkedIn, not where they're working, and connect with them. Send them a quick note with your elevator pitch: say hi, let them know your year in college or that you're graduating and are prepping for your job search/looking for an internship/job, and politely request they keep you in mind if they hear of anything.
Also, begin following companies and organizations you are interested in working with. You can also follow alumni groups, trade associations, industry associations, etc., and look for connections you may have there. Research a company's diversity and inclusion initiatives to see how you can help in this area.
For non-profits or smaller companies, don't be afraid to call and connect with the department or person listed in the job posting. You can also tap into your vocational rehabilitation counselor to see if they have opportunities you can look into.
"You've reached the voicemail box of..."
Though it may seem like a small thing, make sure your voicemail is updated and professional. Even in an increasingly virtual world, people still make phone calls. If you aren't able to answer the phone, make sure your voicemail doesn't turn them off. Be sure to include your name and sound professional.
Balance your job hunt with self-care.
Mental health and self-care are more important than ever. You need to find a way to balance taking care of yourself physically and emotionally both with your job search and, once you're hired, your job responsibilities. As you build your weekly routine, incorporate recreation such as weekly Zoom get-togethers with friends or virtual fitness classes. Putting it on your calendar will greatly increase your chances of following through, and you'll be so glad you did.
While many things have changed due to COVID-19, much remains the same.
So much of our lives have changed in the past year, so it's easy to lose sight of what remains the same. When it comes to applying for jobs, you still need to be razor sharp not only about your experience and knowledge, but also the values that matter to you. Even with a raging pandemic, your values shouldn't have changed much. These are the rocks you can hang on to during this difficult time - who are you, and what do you care most about?
You want your interviewer to remember you positively, so, considering your values, think about the one to three words or phrases that summarize you. Maybe you have a great attention to detail or go the extra mile. Make sure these phrases appear in your application and interview, and after you are hired, make sure you stick to them during your daily work.
You may not be on campus, but Career Services is.
It can be easy to forget what is available when you aren't physically on campus, but your college's Career Services is still there and ready to help you. They can connect you with opportunities to explore as well as provide information on career fairs that may have moved online.
Additionally, there are many external resources you can turn to for help and support during the job-seeking process. Besides LinkedIn or Indeed, there are lots of other job sites that can help you find a position. Do some research. There are often Facebook groups for specific industries where jobs will be posted or networking can happen. There are still kind people in this world who want to help others get jobs, review resumes, direct you to online job fairs, and network. Google "free job networking groups" and find people that are willing to help.
Interview preparation is still the same.
In the past, virtual interviews weren't really something we worried about. Now, they're almost our only option. One thing that hasn't changed is the way you should prepare for your interview. Research the company and their values. Dress professionally. Prepare for unique questions such as "Describe yourself in a few words." Download the online meeting platform and test it out, preferably more than a couple minutes before the start. Be mindful of your surroundings including your background and noises. You may want to tap a family member or friend to help you get set up prior to the interview, and make sure they don't run the vacuum when you're on your call!
For students who are blind or have low vision, spend some time with your device's camera angle. Using a laptop or a smartphone on a stand will help ensure your camera doesn't shake or move around. If you're using a smartphone and don't have a stand, make sure you have something steady to lean your phone against. Practice with a family member or friend to ensure you're in frame.
When you're applying for jobs or interviewing, research your audience. Do your homework on the organization and if possible, the person you'll be speaking with. Each company is different and you need to do your best to find out some information about that specific company. Maybe diversity or global reach really matter to them, so include something on how that relates to you in your application and interview. This can create a sense of resonance that your values fit with theirs.
Get to know your audience by talking to people who work there, searching online for news and information, so you can build a picture of who they are, what they stand for and what makes them tick. Do your homework so you can press the right buttons when it comes to writing applications and having a good interview.
To disclose or not to disclose, that is the question.
Well, really, the question is more about when to disclose your blindness or low vision. For everyone this is a personal choice. You can include it on your resume or cover letter, share during a phone screening, or discuss it in your virtual interview. The choice is yours. Generally, it's a good rule of thumb to disclose your visual impairment when it relates to the position you're applying for.
When you do decide to disclose, it's not about just letting them know that "by the way, I'm blind." It's also about identifying the tools and accommodations you use to do the job, so you'll need to be aware of what those are or could be. Do you use JAWS? A magnifier? Certain lighting? You need to be aware of all of these so you can advocate for yourself. It's possible you may be the first person who is blind or low vision to work for them, so take that as an opportunity. Not only are you there to do a job for your employer, but your employer is also there to help you.
While this may not happen for a long time, you may want to consider disclosing before you arrive at the physical office for an interview, particularly if you'll need accommodations within the building, guidance to the door, etc.
Your disclosure is also an opportunity to outline your qualifications. What makes you a good fit for the job? Maybe you're interviewing with a company that serves people with disabilities. Well, you have lived experience in that and can relate. You can mention your disability and how it's an advantage to the position.
If you're uncomfortable disclosing directly or if the job you're applying for does not have to do with disabilities, you can do so indirectly by including your leadership experience, participation in extracurriculars, memberships in associations, awards received, etc. in the organizations for the blind that you're a part of. You aren't specifically saying you're blind or have low vision, but are showing an affiliations that leads the hiring manager to connect the dots.
You've got the job, now how do you stand out in a virtual world?
Just because you got a job doesn't necessarily mean you should sit back and relax. Whether you're in an office or not, you'll need to adapt to your new working environment and how you'll be interacting with colleagues. Read the news and stay up to date with what's going on in the world. Review trade magazines and follow industry blogs and social channels. Keep up with research, attend virtual conferences and webinars. Not only does this allow you to actively participate in conversations but it shows your supervisors that you're really invested in your role.
Be the person who comes in early and isn't the first to leave. Be known for being coachable, open, and ready to take on the next task. When volunteers are asked for, volunteer. These are little things that can make a big impact, get you noticed, and make your name top of mind for promotions and recommendations.
Feedback is your friend.
Some people are afraid to ask for feedback in case they hear something they don't like. But you should look at feedback as an opportunity to better yourself. Ask your boss or colleagues for feedback on things you could do better or differently. Be open and curious about what they have to say and really evaluate what you want to do with that information.
A positive that comes from the pandemic...
Consider disclosure for a moment and the fact that those who are blind or have low vision have had to go through this additional process for an interview that our sighted peers have not. We have to be better prepared. In a COVID world, almost everyone has been forced to work from home. A lot of change is expected and that's difficult for some people.
People with disabilities have to adapt every day of their lives. Whether our disability arose during our youth or adulthood, we have had to adapt to an external world that is not as we need it to be. That's a strength. Even though there are clear challenges that COVID has brought to all of us, there are a lot of adaptable practices we've had during our lives that have given us skills that put us in front of the so called "mainstream". The little adjustments and adapting and learning new things can sometimes be exhilarating and sometimes frustrating, but you're experience in this has trained a muscle you can now tap into. You have a strength that many others don't have, which is a positive you can include in your applications and interviews.
Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired
November 18, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio
The Mary P. Oenslager Award is open to college seniors or graduate students who are blind or who have low vision. The deadline for submitting an application is just around the corner on November 30, 2020. If you are a Learning Ally member who meets these criteria, you can brush up your application essays during your Thanksgiving break. We'd love to hear from you! Read more about the award and submit your application here.
We interviewed one of our most recent winners, Timothy Jones. We hope you enjoy his story!
Timothy Jones is a winner of the Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement Award. Timothy was born blind and was homeschooled; he used braille to access textbooks and course materials. Due to the age of some existing braille books and the prohibitive cost of producing new braille books, his family sought an alternative. When he was about eight, Timothy's mother heard about Learning Ally (Recording for the Blind and Dyslexia at the time) during one of her TVI courses at Georgia State University.
This discovery changed Timothy's academic career. His comprehension increased significantly, especially when accompanied with a braille display. At first, he used technology such as a 4-track tape recorder from his local chapter of the Georgia Council of the Blind and a Victor Reader WAVE. In high school, as technology advanced, Timothy used a computer and a PacMate and later a BrailleSense braille display to access his books. The enormous catalog of audiobooks allowed him to comprehend his material much more quickly and to succeed in high school. He graduated with a 4.0 thanks to Learning Ally.
In the summer of 2015, right before starting a Bachelor of Music at Mercer University, Timothy discovered the College Success Program while browsing for audiobooks. The program gave him the ability to connect both with other blind student and with a great source of encouragement: his mentor. He had previously met his mentor at Columbus State University, where he was a music major as well. Overall, the CSO provided an enormous amount of support for Timothy during his college journey. Timothy went on to receive numerous honors and awards, such as the Al Camp Memorial Scholarship through the Georgia Council of the Blind, the Floyd Qualls Memorial Scholarship through the American Council of the Blind, and even graduated Summa Cum Laude from Mercer University.
Now, life is great for Timothy since receiving the award. Unfortunately, Timothy cannot hang out and play with other musicians due to COVID-19. However, he was able to attend the 2020 National Federation of the Blind Convention online. With his award, Timothy plans to pay for graduate school, and even have a little leftover for personal school related expenses. Since his mother helped him through undergrad, he would like to return the favor and help pay for graduate school.
To other blind and visually impaired students, Timothy offers three pieces of advice: work hard, press on during difficult times, and build a strong network of both blind and sighted colleagues. Peers who are blind can help you find resources, and peers who are sighted can provide a competitive environment for you to grow.
Hear from Timothy himself about what this award means to him in this video.
Learning Ally's National Achievement Awards applications can be found here.
November 12, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio
By: Preston Radtke, CSP Mentor
The College Success Program is highlighting how the pandemic is affecting individuals in our blind and low vision communities. CSP Mentor, Preston Radtke, shared the following thoughts.
March 13, 2020, a seemingly meaningless lamppost on a calendar full of the normal highs and lows of life. However, as everyone knows, that was the day that everything truly changed. School closings, canceled concerts, restricted travel...and that was just the beginning. The coronavirus era has brought forth a whole host of unforeseen alterations to all aspects of working and living. In a way, coronavirus's most impressive feat is that it's one of the only occurrences on Earth that has affected the everyday lives of all of its residents.
I am not unique; I too have realized some dramatic shifts in lifestyle. For instance, the biggest change is in my work situation: I work at a major university, and before March 13, I took part in the standard wake up, commute to work, commute home-grind; a grind that I have grown to miss. As of this writing, I haven't been back in the office for seven months. My living room is my office, and my bedroom is my break room. I'm not going to lie; it hasn't been the most pleasant setup. For one, I deeply appreciated the camaraderie of office mates. I miss the lunches and random dashes for ice cream to ease the monotony of a cloudy Tuesday. Sure, we have Zoom meetings and virtual lunches, but it's not the same.
Oddly enough, working from home has actually increased my office's output. I don't know why, but ever since we went virtual, our production has almost tripled. I initially thought that working from home would make everyone stagnate and make an already stressful situation worse; but I wonder if the change in locale has been beneficial for my coworkers. It makes sense if you think about it, working on your home turf; not having to deal with the petulant, annoying office mates that are standard in many businesses. Our output has been so noteworthy that the department is seriously considering making our positions permanently hybrid once things get back to "normal." That's to say, a few days at the office and a few days at home each week for my team.
Living and working with a guide dog has raised some new challenges in the COVID era. Many of my trips with my guide, Burton, were very destination-based such as going to restaurants, shopping, etc. Now, since the majority of those have been closed, many of my trips consist of long geographic loops around my town and slightly aimless wandering and exploring. Aimless wandering and retreading the same route can only be so exhilarating for dogs and because of this I've had to be aware of Burton's interest level to make sure he's not bored. Sometimes a bored dog leads to a complacent dog, which could lead to behavioral or work-related errors down the line.
I'm very fortunate that so far coronavirus hasn't impacted anyone I know directly except for a family friend who has recovered. However, my father is the perfect candidate for infection, as he is older and immune-compromised. Also, my father had a third relapse of pancreatic cancer this summer, an occurrence which was made all the more stressful in the COVID era. Frequent trips to the hospital and family members not being allowed to visit him for extended stays made an already depressing situation even worse. Fortunately, the treatment he undertook a few weeks ago seems to have shrunk or killed the majority of the cancerous cells in his pancreas so hopefully (knocking loudly on wood) he is in the clear.
I really miss concerts, I must say. The prospect of taking a train in to New York or Philly, getting dinner somewhere and seeing one of my favorite bands is something I'd really taken for granted. If I'm being honest though, even if we do get a vaccine or a declaration of "normalcy", it's going to be a long time until I go to another concert or run around carefree in a tightly packed metropolis.
As a teacher, I deeply miss my interactions with my students. I prided myself on building an informal, yet informational classroom experience. Sadly, the human social experience and virtual meetings have yet to create equivalent interactive scenarios.
If I had any long-lasting advice, I would say take up a hobby. Immersing yourself in a hobby or pastime is always beneficial, but in these times of forced isolation and social exodus it's even more so. I'm not saying write the next American novel (but please give it a shot if you like), it could be something as simple as binging a podcast or TV show; or learning an ew instrument. Keeping yourself busy will stave off boredom and increase your overall health and well-being.
It's also really important to lean on your support system. Whether it's friends, family members, or your Learning Ally family, utilize your circle to make sure you don't further exacerbate the cycle of isolation. Remember, everyone is going through this, so if you're feeling lonely and left out, odds are your friends are as well. Reaching out and communicating with them could be beneficial for everyone.
November 5, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio
Interview by: Kristen Witucki, College Success Program Curriculum and Content Editor
The College Success Program is highlighting how the pandemic is affecting individuals in our blind and low vision communities. CSP Mentor, Rachel Grider spoke about her experiences via interview with Kristen Witucki in June 2020.
Kristen Witucki: How has the pandemic changed your life?
Rachel Grider: I thought I'd have much more time! I had a list of things I wanted to accomplish: starting a YouTube channel, making recordings, writing. Because of the slower pace of life, I began to feel more inspired and figure out what needs to change. The pandemic oddly helped me to focus on what is most important to me.
Kristen: Can you explain more about that?
Rachel: I realized I love music, and I know that's weird to say, because I studied music. But with some experiences I've had before, I lost some of the original joy it gave me. I associated singing with stress. Practice only made me feel inadequate.
Now during the COVID crisis, when I have long hours with myself, I started to set aside some time each day when I would just do music for fun, I would not care, I would just sing or listen to music. The only purpose of doing this was to help me to feel joyful. I pulled out some of the music I used to listen to in college, and it reminded me of the excitement it used to give me when I was younger and less jaded. It also helped me to step out of my comfort zone. I started to learn more about myself and my capabilities.
Kristen: What are some of the new projects you are doing?
Rachel: I'm doing a big virtual choir for NFB (National Federation of the Blind) right now. I didn't think about doing this three months ago. The pandemic has forced me to try things like that.
Kristen: What has changed in the blindness community now that everything is virtual?
Rachel: [Now that everything is virtual] you are on even footing with sighted people, so there is not a stigma about blindness over Zoom. In some ways, it's not as good because [people who are blind or low vision] can hid while using Zoom. You aren't showing people that you can use mobility, but in another way it's cool because when you're with sighted people on Zoom, you can be more yourself, because you don't worry about them judging your blindness.
Kristen: Is there anything else that has changed for you since the beginning of the pandemic?
Rachel: In some ways I'm busier than I was before. And procrastinating is no longer an option. Now that the pandemic has happened I'm stuck here, I can't go anywhere, I'm excited to just be able to move forward again. I feel like I need to stop putting things off and just explore more.
October 29, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio
Compiled by: Kristen Witucki, College Success Program Curriculum and Content Editor
The College Success Program is pleased to introduce our 27 Mentors for the 2020-2021 academic year, and what better time to do it than during Meet the Blind Month! Our Mentors represent a variety of interests, personalities, experiences, and knowledge. Read on to learn more about a few of them in Part 5 of this blog series and see if you have anything in common. You never know when or where a connection can be made!
This blog is the fifth in a 5-part series. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.
If you are a college student who is blind or low vision, and who is interested in working with one of our Mentors, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to begin the process!
Education: BM in Vocal Performance and Composition from CSU Stanislaus; MM in Music Performance and Theory Pedagogy from Peabody Conservatory
Rachel is from Modesto, California. She is currently teaching music at the Modesto Academy of Music and Design and Gottschalk Music Center, as well as performing freelance. Rachel is a member of Sigma Alpha Iota and Py Kappa Lambda.
For Learning Ally, in addition to mentoring students, Rachel co-hosts our podcast, College Knowledge.
Education: BM in Music Education (choral/voice) from Columbus State University
Rashad is a native of Columbus, Georgia (where he currently resides), and is the 2nd oldest of 4 siblings. As a self-proclaimed people person, Rashad can often be found enjoying a conversation with close friends and family, while relaxing in the comfort of his home. He enjoys attending church where he serves as minister of music, traveling, interacting with people, and helping others whenever possible!
For Learning Ally, in addition to mentoring students, Rashad co-hosts our podcast, College Knowledge.
Sam Van Der Swaagh
Education: BA in Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies from City University of New York
Sam grew up in NYC in the West Village with his large family of 2 sisters and 3 brothers. He was homeschooled through high school along with his siblings by his outstanding parents. Sam has experience in tutoring college freshmen and sophomore level courses such as STATS, biology, and chemistry.
Although Sam's major during college was Applied Psychology and Neuroscience, he is currently pursuing a career in textile design. His interests were radically changed! If Sam is not "in the studio" weaving carpets and fine fabrics, he spends his free time swing dancing, training for long distance runs with friends, and experimenting with origami. Sam's artistic passions are certainly bolstered by his visual impairment that drives him toward tactile forms of expression and affords him a unique perception of the world. Sam's visual condition consists of albinism, nystagmus, and astigmatism. He is a large print reader yet often prefers listening to audiobooks or utilizing speech-to-text options. Sam also enjoys talking about the latest science and technology innovations.
Education: BS in Child Studies with minors in Special Education and Psychology and an MS in Human Development Counseling from Vanderbilt University
Stephanie grew up in New Jersey and is the oldest of four siblings. Her passion is working with children and animals. She lives in Colorado with her Seeing Eye dog, Marley, where she works as an elementary school counselor.
She absolutely loves to exercise! She recently tandem cycled for the world championship in Milton, Canada, where she and her pilot represented the US and won a bronze medal in the sprints. She also enjoys running and ran the New York City and Boston marathons with Achilles International Nashville. She ahs junior and senior black belts in White Tiger Kempo and has been boxing since the age of ten. She believes that education and advocacy are the key ingredients for a successful college experience.
Education: BA in Humanities and Find Arts from the University of Wyoming; MA in Counseling with emphasis on rehabilitation from the University of Arkansas; PhD in Adult Education from Auburn University
Tabitha currently works as an accommodation specialist in the Office of Accessibility at Auburn. Prior to returning to school, she worked in the rehabilitation field as a rehabilitation teacher, counselor, and supervisor. The achievement of goals by students or clients that they previously thought impossible is the aspect of her career that she enjoys the most.
Tabitha has many hobbies including reading, knitting, weaving, playing harp and singing. She is a member of the American Association of Blind Teachers, an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind, and is the secretary of that organization.
Education: BS in Animal Science from Cornell University; MS in Animal and Dairy Sciences from Mississippi State University
Zachary grew up on a dairy farm in Northern New Hampshire. He lost almost all of his vision due to a brain tumor. His involvement in county and state 4-H livestock extension programs impacted his professional and personal life. At Cornell, he was involved in many groups such as the Cornell Dairy Science, Cheese, and Food Science clubs and became a member of the Alpha Zeta honors agricultural fraternity. He also belonged to the Cornell Dairy Fellows Program; a curriculum within the Animal Science department, which is well-known for training the future leaders of the dairy industry. Zachary has a passion for problem-solving, farm families, and agriculture as a whole. He believes ingenuity and flexibility are the keys to success for the exemplary people who are blind that he knows.
To read the biographies of the rest of our Mentors, click here.