In IT, a Disability Is no Liability

FRAMINGHAM (07/24/2000) - Rodney Wines sees his role in networking clearly.

He's the senior systems administrator for Alcatel SA's corporate headquarters in Paris. A 30-year veteran of the computing industry, today he installs TCP wrappers, as well as DNS, SMTP, proxy and Web servers; manages network backups, writes scripts and more.

Yet Wines is legally blind. Wearing glasses, he has enough farsighted vision to get around but can't see detail. He relies on heavy magnification for that.

"To read the smallest print, my nose must be almost touching whatever I'm reading in order to focus properly. I can't learn by looking over someone's shoulder. In order to see the screen, I'd need to get so close that we'd better be good friends," laughs Wines, an amiable man who is living proof that physical impairments are not necessarily limitations for IT folks.

This conclusion is dawning on an increasing numbers of companies. Many more are now accommodating people who have disabilities. As of 1998, the most recent year for which statistics are available, out of a total of 120 million people employed, 16 million were disabled. Of these, 250,000 were employed as computer equipment operators, computer scientists and programmers, according to a report from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitative Research.

People who have disabilities will be increasingly tapped to fill the labor shortage. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that, by the year 2006, there will be 25 million more jobs than workers. Already, a good 10 million unfilled IT jobs languish in the U.S. Yet, as of 1998, 12 million people who had disabilities were looking for work, according to a poll conducted that year by Harris and Associates, a market research firm in New York.

What companies are learning is something that Wines himself helped to teach: In some ways, a so-called disability is more like a benefit in the IT world. For instance, because he sees poorly, Wines has developed better work habits. He relies more on actual knowledge and less on visual cues than his colleagues do.

"A typical person uses the instruction manual as a surface for a coffee or beer while the hardware gets put together, consulting it only as a troubleshooting guide if the finished product doesn't work. I can't afford to do this - and that doesn't mean I drink any less coffee or beer," he quips.

Rather, he reads a manual cover to cover even before unpacking the hardware.

This lets him know what to look for, especially with items that are intrinsically hard to see, such as labels on connectors and sockets. With the manual memorized, he knows that the "video-out" connector is third from the left before he touches the device. In the long run, he ends up knowing the hardware better than someone who waits for it to break and then reads up on it.

With less reliance on eyesight, he's also developed better organizational skills than many of his peers. For example, he writes his technical notes while he develops his code. "I line up comments for readability and indent the code to show the program structure. When I type an opening bracket, I immediately type the corresponding closing bracket, then add the code in the middle," he describes.

Early in his career, in the late '60s, Wines says his disability made it difficult for him to convince people he could do the job. He found himself battling with prospective employers' perceptions. During an interview at IBM Research and Development labs, "A very nervous human resources guy told me I'd need to wear safety glasses while in the lab so I wouldn't break my glasses when I ran into things," Wines says.

While Wines didn't get that position, he did eventually accept a different IBM Corp. job. He says the company has grown into a notable employer of people with disabilities.

In fact, helping to break people of their wariness has become one of Wines' proudest achievements. Such was the case at ITT, which has since been acquired by Alcatel. After he'd worked several years at ITT, the company was considering hiring another person with low vision. "I happened to overhear a couple of managers discussing the situation in the hall. One manager told the other, 'Wines does the job, and he doesn't see well.' Later, when ITT hired its third low-vision person, they just asked the new guy what special equipment he'd need," Wines says.

Still, his biggest objection is that labels like "physically challenged" are barriers to understanding.

Other network professionals with disabilities agree. "A good working environment has a level playing field. People don't care about what you can't do, but only what you can do," says Ralph Carlson, a technical staffer at Lucent Technologies Inc., in Lisle, Ill., and president of the company's Individuals with Disabilities: Enabling Advocacy Link (IDEAL) program. IDEAL helps integrate disabled IT workers into Lucent's mainstream.

Like Wines, Carlson is a network professional with a disability. He has worked for more than 16 years at Lucent, where he administers the intranet and Informix Corp.'s database.

Diagnosed in 1978 with multiple sclerosis, he began using a cane in 1984 and steadily lost the use of his legs. Aside from an ergonomic keyboard, the only adaptive device Carlson needs at the office is an electric scooter. For travel, he requires wheelchair accessibility and orders a full-size rental vehicle equipped with hand controls for a gas pedal and a left-side steering column brake.

Because of his illness, Carlson breaks up his workday with rest periods. As his symptoms progressed, his supervisors worked with him to modify his schedule.

They also set up a home office, which lets him skip the commute a few days a week. "They asked me if that would work for me, not the other way around," Carlson says.

In 1987, Carlson joined the company's Affirmative Action Council and noticed it had no programs for people with disabilities. With management's support, he began a local group, Awareness of Inconvenienced Members of Society (AIMS). In 1989, AIMS merged with the corporatewide IDEAL group.

Over time, IDEAL has worked with management to provide awareness and sensitivity training, resolve accessibility issues and consult on new construction projects. With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, Carlson says he noticed a greater openness and willingness to talk about disabilities and accommodations within his company.

Wines' and Carlson's stories are becoming less unique in IT.

Training employers on disability-sensitive issues has been on the rise, says Jeff Schaffer, a principal at Booz, Allen & Hamilton. Schaffer knows firsthand.

He has been largely wheelchair-bound for three years, following a car accident that left him unable to walk except for short distances and in excruciating pain.

Schaffer's personal experience led him to bring his 17 years of management consulting expertise to the field of disability consulting. He now leads Booz Allen's Disabilities Task Force, an employee group.

"I became an advocate for individuals with disabilities and formed a task force to improve employment opportunities within my company," Schaffer says. Then he took his message to the road. His Disabilities Forum has worked with the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities, the National Business and Disability Council and Microsoft Corp.'s Able To Work program.

During his recovery at various hospitals, Schaffer was struck by the number of disabled people who had withdrawn inside themselves. He understands, as he too had moments when he was tempted to retreat.

"I realized that by taking very little time off from work and maintaining a normal routine, I could fight off depression and lessen the impact of my health problems," Schaffer says.

Most of all, he discovered the Internet made his recovery and adjustment to a less mobile lifestyle easier. "By being a member of the e-generation, one can escape the bounds of a damaged body and compete on equal terms with those without disabilities," Schaffer says.

Using the Internet, Schaffer, like everyone else, can communicate with colleagues, participate in meetings and complete other work. It was also the instrument he used " research assistive technologies that have allowed me to overcome my disabilities."

Wines perhaps sums up the new-and-improved workplace attitude best: "Different doesn't always mean harder or worse or better. I am held to the same performance standards as [my] colleagues, but we may arrive at the end product by different paths."

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