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Of Internships and Independence

by Allison Nastoff, Brookfield, Wisconsin

I have heard of internships being called "classrooms without walls," since they are out in the community and provide the opportunity to learn through practical experience instead of the theoretical (and in my opinion, boring) approach in traditional classes.

That's why upon learning, in my freshman year of college, that an internship would be required after my junior year, I didn't know if I could wait that long.

Before I knew it, junior year had arrived, and it was time to start applying for internships. Little did I know, however, that the process of applying for internships would also be a "classroom without walls"--and a very stressful, frustrating, but ultimately, rewarding class at that.

I should mention that before entering this "class," I had made a vow to myself that I was going to do everything independently. Generally, I have nothing against asking for help in other areas of life, but I felt that internships were different. Given that I have heard there is still a 70 percent unemployment rate for blind people, what would employers think if they found out I couldn't navigate their website independently or if it is apparent that someone else wrote my resume? Asking for help certainly wouldn't be showing my appreciation for teachers all through school who never gave me easier assignments than the rest of the class simply because I was blind.

So with that in mind, I went to the career center to learn how to write a resume. I composed one that same afternoon. I let a sighted person give me suggestions about how to format it to look nicer, but she did not take control of the mouse and make these changes for me. She walked me through how to do it by myself on the keyboard using the JAWS screen reader.

Once my resume was done, I had another hour free before an evening class, plenty of time (I thought) to apply to READER'S DIGEST, which I subscribe to in braille. I was delighted to find they had an office in my area looking for interns. But when all was said and done, it ended up taking five hours.

On the first attempt, I only got as far as entering my name into the first form field. When I hit "tab" to go to the next field, JAWS didn't say anything. When I tried using "down arrow" and then going back to the top of the page, JAWS merely repeated the prompt for the first field. I had no idea where I was and decided to start over. On the second attempt, I successfully completed the first section, only to realize it was time for me to get to class. The section I completed had not been saved, as I had thought it would be after I entered my email address. On the third attempt, the computer kicked me off the site and shut itself down after completing the first section. On the fourth attempt, I got to the final step, uploading my writing samples, only to find myself in some Flash movie thing where JAWS didn't work. When I tried to close out of it and try again later, it closed out the whole application. Again, nothing was saved!

By this point, I was so frustrated that I was about ready to cut my losses. I didn't touch the application again for a couple of weeks. Then I remembered that in school, giving up was never an option, and it isn't a good habit to start in life either. But when I still couldn't figure out how to upload my writing samples, I realized I had no choice but to ask for help. Though I couldn't enjoy the satisfaction of total independence as I had hoped, the application was finally submitted.

Shortly thereafter, I received a generic email from READER'S DIGEST which asked about the requirements to receive internship credit for my college and if there was anything else I felt they should know. This was when I decided it would be appropriate to mention that I was blind, but felt I could perform the duties of the internship with just a few accommodations which I listed. Three days later, I received a call from a lady who explained that the internship duties for the office in my area required working with reader-submitted content which is often handwritten and includes photos. Therefore, she didn't think I would get a quality internship experience with them. I have dealt with people whose tone announced clearly that they just didn't want the bother of accommodating a blind person, but this lady didn't seem like that kind of person. She sounded polite and genuine, so I decided not to argue with her. But that meant I had to resume the application process once again.

Next, I decided to act on the recommendation of a favorite professor of mine and apply for an internship in the governor's office. But once again, I did not want to ask for help when the application was a PDF file that I could not fill in using Microsoft Word. I didn't want to contact the governor's office about this problem, fearing that doing so would send a first impression of incompetence before they even saw my application, but I certainly didn't like the idea of printing it and having someone fill it in for me.

Should I just cut my losses with this internship, too? "No," the person who helped with my resume said, "I would email the office. You cannot be the only one having issues with the application." So I swallowed my pride and sent an email. A couple of weeks later, I received an application converted to Microsoft Word, which I was able to fill in without another hitch. I knew that this office did not find me incompetent when less than a week after submitting the application, I was offered an interview and was officially accepted three days after that!

Independence is a wonderful goal to strive for whenever possible, especially as blind people in a world where sighted people often don't realize how capable we are. But this unofficial, self-directed pre-requisite course in "Applying for Internships" taught me valuable lessons that I hope will save future blind internship seekers from having to experience the frustration and self-doubt that I did.


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