by Deborah Armstrong
I still remember pleading with the high school principal to get a turn at answering phones in the front office. Our school was an early experiment in mainstreaming the disabled, and the other blind students were autistic or developmentally delayed. I attended regular classes and did not use any special education services, but I was still blind and in the principal’s eyes, not competent to handle the job.
This was the early 1970s, decades before the ADA. Even though Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act would be passed a few years later, it would take longer for public schools to even begin to treat disabled students with a little less discrimination.
But though society had not begun to truly change, I had. I realized if I wanted something, I would need to take a stand. I applied with several exchange student organizations, with the full support of my parents, and was turned down. I wasn’t ready to go to college; I wanted an adventure after high school, and I felt I could live in another country for a year.
The Rotary Club finally accepted me after I spoke before one of their meetings, demonstrating my skills and willingness to take on the challenge. So I went to Germany for a year.
That trip changed me from a kid into a young woman. I had successes but also almost got sent home when I was caught in a boy’s bedroom. Looking back today, I realize we only discover maturity after we’d made a few really stupid mistakes.
But one of my happiest triumphs was working as a receptionist at the school for the blind. There, nobody cared about my lack of vision; instead it was my (at first) poor facility with the language that handicapped me. But soon I was able to take messages as effectively as a native speaker, giving me a huge measure of confidence. I had to announce incoming calls through a public address system and learned to ignore the titters when people heard my accent. I had to type out messages on a German typewriter, in German, without messing up, and of course I had to understand the callers.
I did attend college when I returned home, and eventually got a full-time job coordinating recreation programs for disabled adults. I was, however, still a teenager, and often arrived for work late, and was disorganized. I was eventually fired, after I planned a horseback riding trip for kids with cerebral palsy and forgot to schedule a driver to take the van of children up to the horse ranch. I still remember all those angry parents!
Again, it was through carelessness I learned to be efficient and effective. In my other jobs after that disaster, my performance reviews always praised my organization and time management skills, but they were not skills I was born with, for sure.
The biggest thing I learned from my mistakes was that I needed to commit to changing myself, and I could make it happen. For another example, I used to be a terrible speller. But when I began using spell checkers on my computer, I decided I did not want to depend on them, as I still could use a manual typewriter. So each time the spell checker found a mistake, I’d have it show me the corrected word, and then I would type it three times myself, to build muscle memory for how it was supposed to be spelled. At first, it took hours to spell check a document, but gradually, my fingers learned how to spell. Today, I almost never misspell a word, and the spell checker catches just typos. However, I still make plenty of those!
Another turning point occurred when I lost my job at Stenograph due to our California office closing. I was interviewing with someone who I could tell did not believe I could work in technical support. I told the following story which completely changed the interviewer’s attitude.
At Stenograph we had a customer named Mary Lou, who called in nearly every week with one problem or another. We had a new feature in our software that let court reporters record voice memos while they worked on preparing transcripts. Mary Lou couldn’t find the record button onscreen.
Now the 28 others I worked with were sighted, and they could see that button on their screens. So they kept telling Mary Lou where to click but she just couldn’t get it to work. I think she talked to every one of us and we all were sure her computer was broken.
I took a different approach. I wanted to see the screen through Mary Lou’s eyes. So I asked her to describe the buttons she saw. After she went through the pencil button, the file folder button and the paper clip button, she got to a button she told me was a candle.
“Oh,” I said, “It’s a microphone … Click it.”
She did and was able to record her voice. Eventually, my technique, looking at the screen through the customer’s eyes rather than your own, became an accepted part of our technical support routine. I had changed the whole culture of the office. My co-workers learned to ask the customers what they were seeing, and it improved everyone’s success.
My last example of making my own luck occurred after I lost another job, working as a software engineer and tech writer. This time it was the dot-com bust that was responsible, plunging many of Silicon Valley’s tech workers into unemployment. Thousands of us descended on the echoing halls of job fairs, and I had a job developer who offered to guide me around.
I had gone to job fairs before with a sighted guide and I thought it made me look more dependent than I wanted to appear. So with some trepidation, I devised a plan which should enable me to cope with the cacophony and chaos.
Arming myself with a Braille list of the booths I wanted to visit, I asked at the registration desk if someone could walk me to booth 309, which I knew was IBM and which was near the beginning of the aisles of booths. Just as I expected, a huge line waited at the IBM booth. I asked people in that line which booths were to the right, to the left, behind and in front of me. Navigating this way from one line to the next, I took advantage of all those other unemployed but sighted people waiting. I asked them to describe the room’s geography. I asked them to read the recruiters’ sign boards. I asked them to tell me whose lines were the shortest. And instead of depending on one guide, I asked each person to help me for maybe 30 seconds.
I came away from that job fair brimming with confidence. I had practiced describing my skills to a variety of recruiters. I had the elevator speech down! My sighted friends were depressed about the crowds and the limited possibilities of finding work. But I had conquered the problem of navigating job fairs and I felt I could handle any interview. I was hired just two months later by an employer who asked me a number of technical questions to which I did not have an answer. But it was my confidence and many examples of how I had learned new skills in the past that convinced him to hire me.
Besides technical writing and technical support, I’ve also been a software engineer and now work at a college supporting disabled students. I am a senior citizen and can retire at any time with too many skills to fit on a single resume. I have come a long way from the poor high school kid who couldn’t get a chance to volunteer to answer phones or the program coordinator who couldn’t plan a proper outing. In making both my own mistakes and my own luck I have enjoyed over 50 years of almost steady employment.