Profile of Rita L. Harrison, Program Analyst, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Success Is the Best Revenge!
Intro: Especially for women and those with vision loss, this CareerConnect mentor promotes principles of individual success. Her achievements in the community and workplace bring special insight into attaining one's personal best.
The Story: My name is Rita L. Harrison and I am a Program Analyst with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The work I do mainly focuses on accessibility issues having to do with the FDA's internet and intranet services and that which falls under Section 508. I'm also Vice Chair of the FDA's Advisory Committee for Employees with Disabilities (ACED). In this capacity I report to the Commissioner through the Director Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity Management (OEEODM), serving as the agency's eyes and ears, advising employees and their managers about the tools and devices a disabled employee may need to do their job.
A typical day on the job for me is like...well, there is no typical day! On any given day I might be called on to test different programs or sections of web pages. Calls could come from inside and/or outside the agency on issues related to access, troubleshooting assistive technology and software for others. Sometimes these calls come from individuals and other agencies to ask for assistance to see if pages or their sites are accessible. I'm not sure where it is they learn of me—maybe by word of mouth or referrals—but once someone called from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), FDA's parent agency, and while speaking with this person, it was revealed that he was contracted by DHHS, and due to a clear conflict of interest, I was not able to help him with the issue he had called about. However, as it turns out, I was able to help him in another way as he had been diagnosed with cancer and I, myself, am a cancer survivor. From time to time, the caller and I still chat. So, as you can see, there is no telling how a day might unfold.
Most of my work is done with the Section 508 Coordinator in the Commissioner's office and other web staff and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) officials. Some of my responsibilities are to coordinate our employee credit card program, which was set up to expedite purchases without the need to go through procurement, which can be a tedious process. Other worthwhile things have emerged from my work, too, such as being called upon to serve as a panelist at a Georgia Tech Conference about accessible cell phones and emergency disaster warnings. There are many venues for me to share my expertise such as this one and a recent webinar hosted by AFB CareerConnect® where I had the opportunity to be one of their panelists speaking to professionals in the field of blindness.
Before my employment with the FDA, I worked for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) office in Minnesota as a Procurement Clerk in the procurement and Grants Section. This was a step up the ladder as I helped write grants, cooperative agreements, and memoranda of understanding. When their office closed, I applied for a position with the FDA, and when I was hired as a purchasing agent, I really liked that position. Nevertheless, when an opening became available in support services, I applied and was promoted to Administrative Officer for the district, overseeing the entire admin area as well as being placed on the audit cadre and assigned as the lead for our procurement team to restructure the purchasing process.
In the position of Director/Management, Program Support Branch, for the Minneapolis District Office of the FDA, I did audit cadre and traveled to different FDA facilities assisting in auditing administrative functions. After seeing other parts of the country, I decided I wanted to move somewhere different. So as I traveled, I talked to others to learn about what it was like to live where they lived. Atlanta seemed to be the place for me, so I actually took a demotion, letting go of a supervisory role to get there, but the weather and challenge of a new job were a welcome change.
For a few years after moving to Atlanta I assisted in reviewing, streamlining, and revising different administrative functions, processes, and staff trainings. Then changes in administration and how things were done occurred and there was a restructuring of admin functions. Operating by Section 508 guidelines also came into play during this interval.
While on a professional front, these sizable changes were taking place, on a personal front, I was battling cancer and also losing sight, both at the same time. Although chemotherapy helped in my fight for my health and to stay alive, it took its toll on my remaining vision and I was faced with having to make even tougher life-changing decisions than whether to move or change jobs. Taking recess from the normal, I learned braille, the use of screen readers, and orientation and mobility. The reward for learning good O&M skills was getting Ramsey, a priceless companion and dog guide.
It would also be appropriate at this point to make you aware that I did not go through this difficult challenge alone. My co-workers and employer deserve many kudos as they were very supportive and not only gave me the time off I needed, but many generously donated annual leave. And, since I wasn't able to do it on my own after the surgery, the Atlanta office took it upon themselves to order groceries to be delivered to my home. Some of the employees in my branch even came to my home to assist me in cleaning and would bring lunch. In addition to some of them checking up on me, when I was between chemo treatments and wanted to work, someone would walk with me to the office, just to make sure that I would be okay. A bond developed between me and these good-hearted people and some wonderfully awesome things came out of a very dark time in my life.
Besides having Ramsey by my side everywhere I go, there are many other accommodations that have been necessary for me to be successful at what I do and those are the devices I use, both high and low tech. Some of them are JAWS and System Access. SA to Go makes moving around the Internet easy for me and, in my opinion, surpasses others. But, I use them all in the testing process. I also use embossers, Blaize, ID Mate bar coding, hand-held labelers, Kurzweil, Pac Mate, Braille Plus, an old Millennium Notetaker, my trusty slate and stylus, and a cell phone with speech and Way Finder.
As with every job, there are many things I like about mine, but I think what I like most is when I can see we are doing something that makes a difference for people with disabilities. What I'm hoping is that other people with disabilities coming into the workforce behind me won't have half the struggles I've had to gain and keep employment.
The parts I like least are the everyday battles of trying to effect change in attitudes of discrimination and low expectations. It's 2009 and in spite of how far we've come, we're still fighting that battle on many fronts. My awareness of this ongoing battle comes from being on a race relations impact team. The sad realization is that discrimination still exists in several forms and the parallels of discrimination between racism and disability are eerily similar.
Something else for me to point out is how important volunteering is. We all have something of value to share with others, so when I'm not working, I volunteer for the STARS program at the Center for the Visually Impaired, where I teach after-school classes, chair the Mentoring Program Committee, and mentor two teenage girls.
Being a breast cancer survivor*, I also volunteer for a breast cancer organization where I provide information and support to cancer patients by being a telephone support person for a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week Breast Cancer Support Hotline.
People are seldom in the same place at the same time in life. If my job is one you really want to consider, figure out where you are now and what steps you need to take to get to a position like mine and do not allow fear to get in the way. I call this the FEAR Factor and here's how I combat it! Follow these steps and you can too.
F: Focus and follow your dreams.
E: Educate and Enrich your knowledge base
A: Attitude is the key. A positive attitude will take you far.
R: You will have to be willing to take "Risks." This is the most frightening part of the FEAR factor, but without getting out there and taking that risk, you may never know what you could have done.
Know that there will be times you'll stumble, maybe even fall, because we all have certain areas we don't do as well in as others. So take time to figure out where you're going to shine. If you let growth be a natural progression without either limiting yourself or expecting more from yourself than is realistic, it will add a sense of discovery and excitement as you develop self-esteem and confidence.
The Contact: Rita L. Harrison
* Cancer Organizations, People and other Agencies where Rita found help and support during her illness: