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Tech pros with disabilities prove adaptable and resourceful

“Technical skills, not physical, help people get good jobs in IT, and a flexible attitude helps IT professionals prosper and bring value to their clients.”
– Saswat Kumar Swain, Accenture

“Coping successfully with a disability builds skills like thinking outside the box, useful in developing innovative products and turning challenges into opportunities.” – LaTonia Pouncey, L-3

Career opportunities are growing for engineers and information technology professionals with disabilities, as companies look for innovative ways to hire qualified employees. Driving this growth is a shortage of educated and skilled workers in high-tech fields during the past decade. This shortage is expected to continue over the next decade, according to an Aspen Institute report (aspeninstitute.org) and the a study published by the Society of Human Resource Management (shrm.org).

On its website, the U.S. Department of Labor points out that employees with disabilities offer fresh ideas on how to implement strategies, consistently meet or exceed performance expectations, and have a lower than average rate of turnover (dol.gov). Yet despite these distinct advantages, scientists and engineers with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to be unemployed or out of the labor force, according to statistics from the National Science Foundation.

In 2010, according to the NSF’s report Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent for technical professionals with disabilities and only 3.5 percent for those without disabilities. More than 30 percent of scientists and engineers with disabilities were not participating in the STEM labor force at all, the NSF reports; only 13 percent of non-disabled technical professionals fell into that category.

“Engineers and IT professionals with disabilities encounter a wide range of institutional challenges in seeking employment,” says Richard A. Weibl, director of the Project on Science, Technology and Disability, and director of the center for careers in science and technology for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, aaas.org). “Implicit bias and anxiety of the unknown create obstacles to full consideration of candidates with disabilities.”

Reducing barriers to employment
Groups like the U.S. Business Leadership Network are working with companies to help them reduce barriers and find ways to become more active in talent development and recruitment, says Weibl. “In addition, many colleges and universities have created programs to help students with disabilities to be more competitive as job applicants.”

One such program is Entry Point, the signature program of the AAAS Project on Science, Technology, and Disability (ehrweb01.aaas.org/entrypoint). Entry Point identifies students with apparent and non-apparent disabilities who are studying in science, engineering, mathematics, computer science and some fields of business, and recruits them for internships and co-ops. “Programs like Entry Point can make a difference,” Weibl says. “The students are there, they just need an opportunity.”

Read on to learn about some tech pros with disabilities who have successfully met challenges, and the companies that recognize the tremendous value these pros bring to the workplace.

Senior systems analyst Saswat Kumar Swain brings creativity to Accenture
Saswat Kumar Swain is a senior systems analyst at the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg, FL location of Accenture PLC (Dublin, Ireland), a multinational management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company. Before joining Accenture in 2006, Swain held a variety of positions, including application architect, data architect and business analyst.

“My current role is to analyze and design features on the client platform. I’m also responsible for en d-to-end delivery of the project,” says Swain. “I am a creative person. Anytime I can use my creativity to find solutions, it gives me immense satisfaction.”

Swain received a bachelors degree in engineering, focused on electronics and telecommunication, from Utkal University, Institute of Technical Education and Research (Odisha, India). “After obtaining my degree I started working in IT, but I have always been interested in computers and electronics,” says Swain. He has brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair for mobility. “IT requires creativity, an analytical mind and adaptability. Technical skills, not physical, help people get good jobs in IT and a flexible attitude helps IT professionals prosper and bring value to their clients.”

Swain finds Accenture accommodating to people with disabilities. “The work culture of the company is what led me here,” he says. “It was a great career move for me to join Accenture and to expose myself to different aspects of IT on a large scale.”

Accenture champions inclusiveness
“At Accenture we take the widest view possible of inclusion and diversity to ensure that an inclusive environment for persons with disabilities is integral to our culture,” says Nellie Borrero, managing director of global inclusion and diversity. “Each person on each team at Accenture brings value through their specific skills, experience and perspective, which adds to the overall value we bring to clients and the business.”

Accenture has a global persons with disabilities champions network to connect colleagues and caregivers through local collaboration, mentoring, awareness building and networking activities, as well as employee resource groups specifically designed to support persons with disabilities at local Accenture offices. Accenture’s recruiting effort in Brazil places specific emphasis on persons with disabilities, while its program in Argentina combines recruitment with training for people with hearing and mobility issues, Borrero notes.

“Our Skills to Succeed corporate citizenship initiative focuses on helping equip people with the skills they need to get a job or build a business. We support nonprofits working with persons with disabilities, such as Leonard Cheshire Disability, a major U.K. disability charity,” Borrero says. Accenture also supports the Association for Aid and Relief in Japan, most recently through a grant of $1.15 million to help the organization provide vocational training, business skills and suitable job placements to more than 2,700 persons with disabilities, and assist employers in developing appropriate accommodations.

BASF engineer supervisor Cecil “Lacy” Smith has a strategy for success
Cecil “Lacy” Smith works as an instrumentation engineer supervisor at chemical giant BASF (Ludwigshafen, Germany). He manages a team of five salaried employees and five electricians at the Attapulgus, GA site of the BASF catalyst division. The team maintains and performs preventive maintenance to the electrical system that supplies power to the facility as well as the instrumentation in the plant, which controls the processes in the facility.

In 2002, Smith received his associates degree in electronics and engineering technology from Athens Technical College (Athens, GA) and a 2006 BSEE from Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA). He held several positions in the power and chemical industries, building his knowledge of instrumentation and honing his engineering skills before joining BASF in 2011.

Smith was injured in an automobile accident that resulted in nerve damage and limited mobility in his right arm. “A key strategy I use to help work around my disability is to never consider myself disabled, maintain a positive attitude, and not consider anything an obstacle,” he says.

Jean-Pierre E. Mbei of CSC focuses first on professional abilities
Jean-Pierre E. Mbei, an information technology infrastructure program (ITIP) information security engineer senior professional, started with Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC, Falls Church, VA) in 2007 as a consultant, then was hired to work there full time.

“I support the Transportation Security Administration through the ITIP,” Mbei says. “My duties involve security assessment/accreditation and auditing, and other related security projects as needed.”

Mbei is also co-chairperson of the CSC Abilities First Network, one of the company’s employee resource groups. “In this position, I consider myself a role model for the disability community because it shows we also have leadership potential,” Mbei explains. “Professional growth is a multifaceted process that involves not only technical know-how but also soft skills, which in many cases can develop through volunteerism. I am thankful that CSC provides us with this excellent opportunity.”

Mbei, who has profound hearing loss from a near-fatal meningitis attack in high school, went on to get a 1992 BS in information systems and a 1995 MS in educational technology, both from Gallaudet University (Washington, DC), followed by a 2009 MBA in information security from Salem International University (Salem, WV).

Among the tools Mbei uses to communicate are a videophone, Internet IP Relay and Microsoft Office Communicator. “However, I never look at my job in terms of my disability. I look at my job first in terms of my professional interests, and technical or intellectual abilities. Without these, even the best of accommodations or tools will not guarantee success,” says Mbei. “While people with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations, making accommodation a primary focus can jeopardize our careers. We should first consider what our responsibilities as an employee are, and what we bring to the table, in terms of commitment, passion and engagement.”

Jeremy Medders performs testing for L-3
Jeremy Medders is a test engineer 2B at the Greenville, TX Mission Integration division of defense contractor L-3 Communications (New York, NY). “I test radio, voice and data capabilities for numerous aircraft programs,” Medders says. “I’m on the distance end. I relay messages back to the aircraft letting them know if their radios are working to manufacturer’s specifications.”

Medders received his associates degree in electrical engineering technology from ITT Tech in Carmel, IN in 2001, the same year he started working for L-3. “I began my career at L-3 in the test department, where my job was to troubleshoot units down to the component level. I transferred to flight line testing in 2005, where I started managing and configuring test labs,” he explains. “I tested units at the box level making sure they were one hundred percent operational before sending them out to the field. I also went offsite in support of functional testing on aircraft before they were delivered to the customer,” he adds.

Medders is paralyzed from the waist down as the result of a fall from a ladder in 2007. “When I was in the hospital, the doctors told me I would never walk again, but after therapy, I can now walk short distances with a walker. My family challenged me to figure out how to do the same things that I was doing before the accident, just now from a chair. That, and my own motivation, made it possible for me to continue to work at L-3, and walk.”

After the accident, the management at L-3 held his job until he was ready to report back to work, and provided a flexible work schedule during his three-times-a-week physical therapy.

“L-3 made sure I had every resource available to do my job, even though I was now in a wheelchair,” he says. His job duties haven’t changed much, except that he now does his tests in a lab rather than on board the aircraft.

“My parents are my role models. They are always there for me when I need them,” says Medders. “Without their support I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today. Watching them succeed in life always made me want to be the best at everything that I do.”

Disabled pros make capable, “can-do” leaders
“Coping successfully with a disability gives a person a unique perspective that can be valuable in many areas, from thinking outside the box in developing innovative products to brainstorming and turning challenges into opportunities,” says LaTonia Pouncey, manager of corporate diversity and inclusion at L-3 Communications. “Employees with disabilities are often more patient and respectful of others. In some cases, their personal challenges have taught them to be more resourceful problem solvers and more thorough in their follow-through. Failure becomes a pathway to growth instead of something to be feared.

“Taken together, these characteristics can help professionals with disabilities develop into capable leaders with a broader view of the world and a ‘can-do’ outlook.”

Thomas J. Wlodkowski ushers in a new era of accessibility at Comcast
Thomas J. Wlodkowski, vice president of accessibility for Comcast Corp (Philadelphia, PA), is driven to empower people through technology. “As a person who is blind, I understand the importance of accessible mainstream technology, and I’ve experienced the challenges that occur when technology isn’t accessible.”

Wlodkowski, who joined Comcast in 2012, points out that Comcast was the first cable company to create a dedicated accessibility office. “I report directly to our senior VP of product design. That close connection to a top leader shows that accessibility is considered a component of our products and services, not an add-on,” he says.

A leader in accessible technology
During his time at Comcast, Wlodkowski’s team has been able to build out and demonstrate the nation’s first talking cable TV interface, which was introduced at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s 2013 Cable Show in June. It’s designed to enable people who are blind or have low vision to navigate on-screen set-top box menus, including OnDemand and the Comcast linear program guide. The new feature will be integrated into X2, the next generation of Comcast’s X1 platform.

Before joining Comcast, Wlodkowski spent a decade leading accessibility at AOL (New York, NY). He oversaw the launch of AIM Relay, which allows people who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech-disabled to place phone calls to people on their AOL contact lists through a combination of on-screen instant messaging and telecommunication relay services.

Wlodkowski explains that his Comcast team is helping create accessible user experiences using some basic design concepts: consumer engagement, employee awareness and evolving product and service capabilities. Input from the consumer community comes through usability tests and roundtable discussions with advocates and technology experts; employee awareness ensures that engineering teams use best practices for developing accessibility solutions for web or mobile interfaces and other products. Product capabilities are being added to the next generation of Comcast platforms, and service capabilities are being upgraded to ensure that customers with disabilities can access and learn about Comcast offerings.

“Comcast is a global media and technology company,” Wlodkowski notes. “Our executives understand how accessibility can serve as a driver of innovation.”

NBCUniversal IT director Connie O’Neal-Bates leads new ERG
Connie O’Neal-Bates is an IT director at NBCUniversal (New York, NY), which is owned by Comcast. Her team manages billing and invoicing for studio operations in Universal City, CA, where she’s based, as well as for satellite departments in New Mexico, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

O’Neal-Bates is also the co-leader of the NBCUniversal West Coast Abilities Network. “It’s a new employee resource group,” says O’Neal-Bates. “I’m excited about it because we will be educating not only our leaders, but also our peers. There are many people with invisible disabilities, as well as physical ones, that my co-leader and I, along with the membership, will be able to put a face on. It’s an honor and challenge that I’m truly embracing.”

O’Neal-Bates got her associates degree in computer science from Los Angeles Trade-Technical College in 1972. After graduation, she began working in IT for Max Factor in Los Angeles.

Succeeding in the face of challenge
O’Neal-Bates, who has relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS), was formally diagnosed in 1987, although in retrospect she realizes she had her first MS flare-up years earlier during her time at Max Factor. Even so, she took courses at California State University-Northridge and the University of California LA Extension while climbing the corporate ladder at Max Factor. In 1983, she joined Universal Studios.

O’Neal-Bates finds that managing her time is an important aspect of coping with her disability, as fatigue is a major challenge. “If I have to lead a meeting or perform other important tasks, I try to do that during the morning hours,” she says. She has made a flex time arrangement that allows her to work some hours at home when needed.

“I would advise anyone who is working with challenges to decide how much to acknowledge to your executive structure,” O’Neal-Bates says. “It worked for me to be honest and up front. I didn’t do it on my own, though. I had support from the MS Society on how to handle the conversation. But I think just putting it out on the table has helped my managers understand what some of my challenges are and how they can help.”

John O’Donohue handles problem management at Kaiser Permanente
At Kaiser Permanente (Oakland, CA), John O’Donohue is senior technology consultant in the IT problem management department. “My primary role is to manage the lifecycle of problems, from identification through eventual removal or correction. The team seeks to understand the cause of problems, documenting and communicating known errors to minimize the impact of low and medium-severity incidents. Proactively, we work to prevent incidents from recurring by working with stakeholders to correct the underlying error that is generating the related incidents.”

O’Donohue studied information systems at a state technical school in Sydney, Australia. Shortly after graduation in 1995, he was hired by IBM. “My job focused on standardizing the operating environment and application packaging for state and federal government agencies, banking institutions and private sectors for IBM Global Services and IBM Australia,” says O’Donohue. In 2005, he left IBM and immigrated to the United States, ultimately landing a position at Kaiser Permanente in 2006.

O’Donohue has been deaf since he was six months old. Kaiser Permanente has gone to great lengths to provide the accommodations he needs. He was assigned a desk facing the manager’s office so he can see activity or conversation happening. He was also provided with a videophone unit with customized firmware for video relay service, and an onsite sign language interpreter service for team and departmental meetings. Instant messaging and email are also useful tools, he reports.

“Privileged” to have disabled workers
“At Kaiser Permanente, we value the rich diversity of skills, experiences and unique abilities that our physicians and employees represent,” says chief diversity and inclusion officer Ronald Copeland, MD, FACS. “We strive to create inclusive environments that allow each individual to make an optimal contribution to our mission. People with seen and unseen disabilities are integral to our workforce. They bring unique perspectives that help us innovate and think outside the norm to better serve our patients, members and each other. We feel privileged to have people with disabilities bring their talents and skills to Kaiser Permanente.”

Tad McKeon directs cancer center research informatics at St. Jude
Tad McKeon is director of cancer center research informatics for the Comprehensive Cancer Center at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (Memphis, TN). “I’m responsible for the coordination of complex research database systems, integration of data and reporting across disparate systems, and management of multiple development projects,” says McKeon, who has been with St. Jude since 2000. “To accomplish these responsibilities, I work collaboratively with researchers, administrators, system users, technical resources and staff.”

McKeon has a BA in business administration (1982), as well as an MBA in financial management (1987) from Temple University (Philadelphia, PA). He was certified as a CPA, and has been certified by the American Society of Quality Control as a quality manager. He served as a knowledge expert for the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid initiative, authored a book on home health financial management, and co-authored a second book on transforming home care through quality, cost and data management. He’s also been a board examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige national quality award through the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and served on the editorial board for several national healthcare publications.

“At St. Jude, I work with a great group of dedicated individuals and have had a chance to implement some of the concepts I wrote about,” says McKeon. “For example, we are trying to find ways to look at data and process to improve its meaningful use.”

Anything is possible for the hard worker
McKeon was in a car accident when he was in high school that caused permanent paralysis. “I have always worked hard and have been willing to go the extra mile,” McKeon says. “I believe if you are willing to educate yourself, gain experience, demonstrate competence, and find the right environment, anything is possible.”

Qualcomm senior systems architect Jim Barbour takes a creative approach
At the Bridgewater, NJ site of Qualcomm (San Diego, CA), Jim Barbour is a senior systems architect for the IT systems and storage team. “I answer questions such as, ‘what’s the best way to manage a Unix environment in China?’ or ‘what’s the fastest, cheapest, or most reliable way to move large amounts of data from San Diego to India?’” Barbour says.

Barbour had an interest in computers as a teenager. “I quickly moved from Apple II Basic to IBM Fortran to K&R C,” Barbour says. “I found computers to be delightful puzzles, and enjoyed mastering the necessary skills to do it well. After a long stint in college where I had more fun working student jobs and coding computer science projects all night than I did studying for finals, I decided to leave school and try my hand as a professional Unix systems administrator.”

Before coming to Qualcomm, Barbour spent five years working as a government contractor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration managing weather forecasting workstations and research equipment, including several forecasting workstations deployed at air traffic control centers.

He spent the next seven years at Qualcomm as an IT staff engineer, then four years working at Google as a site reliability engineer and three years at Yahoo as a systems architect before returning to Qualcomm.

A good memory, problem solving and task swapping
Legally blind since birth, Barbour uses a talking smartphone and a Windows PC that magnifies print and reads it aloud. “Mostly, though, I rely on a combination of a good memory, problem-solving skills, and task swapping, which is simply trading highly visual work out to other team members for other kinds of work,” Barbour says. “For example, if we need to generate a nice-looking set of architectural diagrams, I'll take a first pass at figuring out what we need, then ask for help actually generating the diagrams.

“My memory helps a lot with note taking in meetings, keeping a lot of specifications and requirements aligned, and keeping a solid understanding of how our systems work together. Problem solving is a skill most of us learn as engineers.”

AIR’s Mindee O’Cummings: research for dropout intervention
Mindee O’Cummings is a principal research analyst for the American Institutes of Research (AIR, Washington, DC). “Most of my current research is focused on dropout prevention and working with readily available data to predict which students are most likely to not graduate. Through that identification, school systems can intervene with students as early as possible and get them back on track,” she says. “We’re in the early stages of a randomized controlled trial of the process.”

O’Cummings received her bachelors and masters degrees in special education from the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque), and her doctorate in curriculum instruction in 2001 from Arizona State University-Tempe.

“My first teaching experience was in an exceptional classroom with students who had physical disabilities.” O’Cummings says.

“From there I became the vice principal of a charter school in Arizona. That led me to pursue my doctorate, after which I came directly to AIR.”

As a result of a spinal cord injury she sustained when she was fourteen, O’Cummings uses a wheelchair for mobility. “I think sometimes my disability works to my advantage because people tend to remember me. It becomes more of a concern when I’m looking for accessible hotel rooms and hand controls for rental cars,” she says.

At times disability-related medical conditions have limited the number of hours O’Cummings can work. “I am fortunate that I work for a company that is so supportive.”

AIR’s focus is on improving lives
“At AIR, we use all our resources, including people and technology, to improve people’s lives, in particular for the disadvantaged,” says Monica Villalta, director of diversity and inclusion. “For example, thanks to the work of the software engineering and product development team led by Jon Cohen, PhD, blind students can have instant access to the same tests taken online by sighted classmates. This allows a focus on the students’ ability, not on their disability. AIR is exploring using other technologies to enhance access to online test delivery systems for deaf students.”

Scott Hansen: operations research analyst with the USAF Civilian Service
Operations research analyst Scott Hansen has been with the U.S. Air Force Civilian Service since June 2012. “I perform data collection, analysis and reporting for at least 13,000 records for science and engineering career field members, providing responses to questions and data charts for managers,” says Hansen. He works in the science and engineering department at Randolph Air Base in San Antonio, TX.

Before joining the USAF Civilian Service, Hansen interned as a system engineer with the Department of Defense in the Washington, DC area. “My job was to provide system engineering support and oversight for the design, build and deployment of new and major enhancements for enterprise applications,” Hansen says. “I also performed technical oversight for applications and for preliminary and critical design reviews.”

Hansen got his 2011 bachelors in mathematics at Gallaudet University (Washington, DC). He is currently working toward his masters in industrial engineering at St. Mary’s University (San Antonio, TX).

Hansen has been deaf since infancy. He uses a video phone and email to communicate with colleagues and customers. “I also utilize sign language interpreters for meetings and other situations where multiple people are speaking, so I can follow verbal information more accurately,” he explains. “And I teach my colleagues sign language.”

Disabled workers are adaptable
Recruiting and retaining workers with disabilities is one strategy to counter the effects of the aging and shrinking federal workforce, according to Jesse O. Martinez of USAF civilian workforce planning and enterprise recruiting. “Perhaps more than any other group of people, individuals with disabilities can adapt to different situations and circumstances. As employees, they add to the range of viewpoints organizations need to succeed, offering fresh ideas on how to solve problems, accomplish tasks and implement strategies.”

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