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Professional Development Seminar Summary: Breaking Down Barriers to Employment

Summary: How do you break employment barriers? Celeste V. Lopes, Deputy Bureau Chief, District Attorney's Office, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Alexander Wood, Political Editor, WE Media, use their personal experiences to show what works and what doesn't.

Author:  Jim Hasse



Celeste V. Lopes: Be Who You Are, Be A Team Player


Alexander Wood: Confidently Present What You Offer


Questions and Answers: Take Responsibility, Advocate
for Yourself




Celeste V. Lopes: Be Who You Are, Be A Team
Player


I'm not offering a blueprint about how to address
disability issues in managing our careers. This is
just a place to talk about the challenges we all face.

I've been blind since childhood, and I'm on my fourth
guide dog.

I went to mainstream schools. I graduated from high
school in 1976, the beginning of mainstreaming. My
parents were very forceful about giving me the
opportunity to integrate into the sighted community.
They always told me I could do what I wanted to do as
long as I discovered how to do it. So, as a youngster,
I took risks. I rode bike. I rode horses. I grew up
arguing for my right to try to do things.

I told my counselor I wanted to be a math major. My
counselor wouldn't sponsor that endeavor, but I went
to a private school and took math anyway.

Then I decided to go to law school. By that time, my
counselor saw I was already managing my own career.
She had no alternative. She said, "You choose law
school; we'll pay."

In law school, I had to prove myself to my peers. I
took the same curriculum and worked the same long
hours as the others. And I was very friendly with
them. I conversed with them. I didn't challenge them.
By the middle of my first year in law school, I became
accepted by my peers.

Then it was time to get a job. I worked in nonpaying
positions. I clerked for a chief federal judge, and I
also worked in the New York attorney general's office.
I didn't make money, but I gained experience.

I admit I was a little brassy during this period. At
that time, I was 4 foot 10 inches tall and weighed 98
pounds, but I walked into job interviews as if I owned
the room. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn't.

By the time I graduated from law school, I had three
job offers: One from the New York State Court of
Appeals (a two-year appointment), the second was an
attorney for the city, and the third was assistant
district attorney. I looked at the long-term career
benefits of each and decided to become a functioning
attorney at much less pay.

When I first started working, I knew in my heart that
my colleagues thought I wasn't up to carrying my load.
So I worked nights to keep up, to get the facts in my
head and to show I could do the job. I proved I was a
team player.

So sometimes you need to be a little brassy. You
always have to prove yourself. And sometimes you need
to "eat crow."

After two and half years on the job, police officers
were saying, "I heard of you. You're really good and
thorough."

So I've learned it pays to be who you are and be the
ideal team player for both your colleagues and
employer - both laterally and up and down the chain of
command. I've also learned that your colleagues will
help you only if they accept you.

I had a friend in the office who was interested in my
success. That gave me a great start.

Try not to be a financial burden on your employer, at
least initially. When I started working in the DA's
office in 1983, the New York State Commission for the
Blind set me up with a computer. My employer had no
financial obligation. We were on DOS at the time. In
1998, we switched from DOS to Windows, and making that
switch with adaptive equipment has been costly for my
employer.
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Alexander Wood: Confidently Present What You
Offer


I've been working in New York City since 1983. I was a
contemporary art dealer before my spinal cord injury
in 1992 when I was 32 years old. As a paraplegic, I
now use a wheelchair and have found employment in a
field where my knowledge of disabilities is an asset.

I have had to relearn how to live. I had a good rehab
experience and was on Medicaid and food stamps. I
found the safety net works. I benefited.

I looked to the media about how to fit in. I saw Chuck
Close, one of the most famous American artists. I saw
him on PrimeTime Live. I called him and, through him,
got a job doing a survey of art galleries. That
brought me back to work.

For seven years, I also worked for Big Apple Greeter
in New York City as an access coordinator In
Manhattan.

Before I became political editor for WE Media, I
tried to get jobs in the mainstream. I learned a bank
in New York needed an art advisor. It was close to
Christmas when I called. I asked if the office was
accessible. The person on the phone became nervous.
She said there was a lot of travel involved but that
she would call me after the holidays. When she didn't
call, I called back, and it took a while to track her
down. She said she had many other qualified
candidates.

From that incident, I learned to be up front about who
I am and what I have to offer. I didn't see the
difference my disability made. Just because I can't
walk doesn't mean I can't work. The accommodations I
need cost next to nothing.

Society will be truly inclusive if we're able to get
jobs in the mainstream.
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Questions and Answers: Take Responsibility, Advocate
for Yourself


Question: Lack of experience is a big
barrier for us. What can media do to help change the
perception that hiring a blind person is "a nice thing"
to do? It should be the "practical" thing to do.

Alexander Wood: There are lots of examples
of people with disabilities who work in the mainstream
and make no excuses for their disability. They're
proud of who they are and doing well. We all have
interesting stories to tell.

Question: I know I can do it. How can we
convince employers that we can do it? We need
assistance to help them become believers. We are an
oppressed minority. How are other minorities doing
it?

Celeste V. Lopes: We can't do it by
legislation. ADA doesn't prove you can do the job.
Each one of us has do it on our own. As individuals,
we are advocates for the entire disability community.
That's a big burden. You can say: "Here are my skills.
I can be one of your stars. Yes, I'm blind, but these
are the techniques I use to get the job done." Always
have a strong offense. That will save you regrouping
to come up with a defense.

Showing employers how people who are blind can work
with adaptive technology is not a selling point. But,
self advocacy is. You can say: "This is how I do it.
This is how much it costs."

I hear your frustration. It's hard. But legislation
is not the answer.

Comment from audience: Advocate on our own.
We all need support while we're growing up. I didn't
have that. But now I have a support organization which
helps me do for myself. I had negative attitude. It
took me a long time to take responsibility. If you
don't have a family, find that support elsewhere.

Comment from audience: I hear your anger.
It's all about your resume. We need to do internships
to get a track record. And take charge. Tell employers
why they need you. Lay a foundation through education,
internships and work experience.

We need to work harder and be smarter than other job
candidates. We need to demonstrate a constructive
attitude and a commitment to ourselves and the job at
hand. Some barriers are self imposed. We need to take
a risk at losing Medicare and go beyond our comfort
levels.

Alexander Wood: There are disincentives to
working, but that's changing. How good is SSI?
$6,500 a year? We have a choice. Either keep it or get
a job.

Comment from audience: These seminars are
getting better and better. I usually get two common
reaction to my visual impairment: "You can't do."
Or, "That's amazing." Celeste proved she doesn't fit
either case - she went down the middle of the road.
Internships are a good idea. I interned in Washington,
D.C. I saw the real world, and it scared the hell out
of me.

I worked at meeting deadlines. I went on
informational interviews and asked people how they did
their jobs and what was expected of them. That was
doing my homework. It takes time.

Question: What's an informational
interview?

Celeste V. Lopes: You set up interviews of
people within your chosen field to see how they do
their work etc. You can get contacts for informational
interviews through a college or alumni office. Take
advantage of those services. They may also lead to
internship opportunities.
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