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Staying the Course
The Full-Time Job of Keeping a Full-Time Job
by Kimberly Morrow
Overland Park, Kansas
As an adult who is blind or visually impaired, you believe you have just come through one of the most harrowing experiences you will ever have. At the very least, you acquired an undergraduate degree, and perhaps you have even acquired a post-graduate education. You have gone through a grueling interview process, during which you may have been asked every type of question from the highly appropriate queries about credentials to the heavily disguised questions regarding your ability to locate the restroom facilities and where you will relieve your dog guide. At long last, you have found an employer who is willing to provide you the opportunity to earn a respectable living. You have achieved the goal of securing full-time employment. You can finally rest easy and stop worrying, right? Not quite. In the case of any new hire, but especially in the case of a person who is blind or visually impaired, keeping a job takes just as much work and savvy as getting the job--and sometimes, even more. What follows are suggestions for sailing your boat in the mainstream and through potentially rough waters.
Maneuvering Around the Workplace - Before your first day, visit your new job site to get a feel for the places you'll need to navigate frequently. If possible, work through the routes on a weekend day or a day when the offices are closed, so that your co-workers will only see the confident, capable you, who is familiar with your surroundings. If you have a dog guide, talk with maintenance about the best location for relieving your dog. If you have any concerns at all about your ability to clean up after your dog, plan to tip a designated maintenance worker to assist if necessary.
Getting To Work On Time - Your employer is not responsible for ensuring that you or your sighted colleagues have adequate transportation to get to work on time. If at all possible, live near a bus line so you can travel to and from work independently. If this is not feasible, the paratransit system might be an option; however, don't count on it. Due to staff shortages and route changes, paratransit cannot always transport you to your desired location by, for example, 8 a.m. sharp. Carpooling is an ideal solution. If possible, locate a colleague who lives relatively near you and ask if she would enjoy carpooling. Let her know that you will pay for the cost of fuel if she will provide the ride. If you cannot locate a carpool, seek out a retiree or college student who may enjoy earning extra money in exchange for transportation.
Prepare for the Power Lunch - If you're going to eat in the office cafeteria frequently, talk to the manager of the kitchen staff. Let the manager know how best to help you, so that you can appear as independent as possible. Remember that a professional appearance at all times is critical. To this end, do not be too proud to ask for assistance through the line. An even better solution is to call ahead, place your order, and let the staff know when you'll arrive. Depending on the staff, your plate may have already been prepared when you arrive. If possible, ask for your food to be placed in "to go" boxes, even if you plan to eat in-house. This way, you only have one spot to locate after you finish your lunch--the trash can.
Accommodations - Be prepared to pay for your own accommodations, unless the company offers to foot the bill. Keep in mind that they could have easily hired a sighted person who would not require costly adaptive computer equipment or readers. What you do have a right to expect is assistance in locating qualified readers if you are unable to do so yourself.
All Systems Go - Know what programs you will need installed on your workplace computer before you arrive. Depending on the size of your company, either have your information services department install the software, including JAWS, Duxbury, or other adaptive software, prior to your arrival, or hire the installation done on your own. Do whatever it takes to be prepared to type that first document on your first day of work.
Street Smarts on the Job - During the first weeks on the job, do far more listening than talking. Make sure you become familiar with the chain of command: Whom do you go to for approval of various projects? Whom do you speak with first if you have concerns about any aspect of your position or the work environment? Having a coherent picture of the rungs up the proverbial ladder will save you a great deal of time and potential hardship.
Making Friends - It is important to get and remain on the good side of your colleagues and to prove your capabilities. Never initiate discussions about your disability. If the subject comes up, politely answer your colleagues' questions, and then quickly move on to another topic of conversation. Remember that you have more in common with those living in the sighted world than you have differences. Invite colleagues out to lunch. If a colleague is ill, drop him/her a get-well card. And always remember to say "thank you." On holidays remember the secretary who reads you that unexpected piece of impossible-to-scan mail or the security guard who always makes sure you're not waiting at the bus stop by yourself at the end of the day.
How to Handle Inappropriate Remarks - If you believe an inappropriate remark has been made about your disability, several steps should be taken prior to filing any type of formal complaint. First, be sure that the remark actually is inappropriate. If you believe an inappropriate comment has been made, talk with your immediate supervisor about the issue. If your supervisor is part of the problem, let your supervisor know that if the problem persists, you will need to approach his/her superior. If the issue does not improve, act upon your word. If the problem cannot be resolved internally, inform all parties concerned that you plan to file a complaint with Human Resources. When you approach Human Resources, find out if you can file an informal complaint before filing a formal one. This allows for mediation before the issue takes on job-threatening proportions.
Let your colleagues see you as a positive, upbeat, motivated professional who is willing to go the extra mile to get the job done. When the occasion arises for another blind job candidate to be interviewed, your employer will have you to thank for the attitude he/she has about the capabilities of people who are blind.
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