Consultant, Trainer, Advocate, and Leader: Turning Negative Experiences Into Stepping Stones
Alicia on graduation day
Intro: No one expected much from blind children in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, but this wonderfully exceptional student's passion for learning and succeeding could not be suppressed. As a result, she ended up teaching the President & Prime Minister of her country.
The Story: In my home country of Trinidad & Tobago, I was the product of an educational system which expected less of blind children than of sighted children. As a result, many students were left feeling discouraged and disheartened. Youngsters who may have possessed great potential often did not fully develop their gifts and abilities. Although I, too, am a blind person who has faced many challenges, I have found that the best way to surpass such feelings is to focus on my abilities and share myself with those whose needs are greater than my own.
Instead of complaining about the inefficiencies in the system or waiting for someone else to initiate change, I decided to be a mover and shaker, and take charge of my own destiny. My tactic involved developing and implementing strategies that would invalidate the negative mindsets towards persons with disabilities. I'm completely confident that this attitudinal change is bound to improve our economic position and create opportunities, as well as motivate others who are blind or visually impaired to pursue and achieve their own personal dreams and goals.
So I made up my mind that I could do something to change the erroneous concept that too many people have about the capabilities of differently abled persons in the Caribbean. But how? What could one person do to make this kind of systemic change? The answer became apparent when I made the decision to put myself through the scrutiny of seeing if I could set a different path for others to follow.
In 2006, I decided that my training, consulting and leadership abilities could pay even greater dividends, if I obtained a university degree. In pursuit of that dream I left Trinidad to become the first blind student to attend Monroe College in New Rochelle, New York. The challenges I encountered as an international student were enormous. It took a lot of sacrifice and strong will, but while studying in the United States, I also had the privilege to interact with successful role models and mentors who gave me the motivation to strive for success and change. Those challenges and encounters gave me the needed fire and fervor to keep going. The reward was more determination to succeed and to graduate Summa Cum Laude in both undergraduate and graduate levels.
This educational accomplishment, and the sense of opportunities opening up, generated in me a burning desire to really make a difference in the lives of other people with disabilities. With great enthusiasm I returned to Trinidad & Tobago in 2011 ready to make that difference for others. But even as a job seeker with qualifications, international experience and a mission, I encountered numerous negative experiences in the hiring process for people with disabilities in the workplace. This was frustrating. After all, I had experience designing and conducting training programs in the use of computer access for over 100 visually impaired persons, advised and guided the National Authority for Library & Information Systems (NALIS) on the creation of computer access for it's patrons with vision loss and a lot more. My goodness, I even taught computer keyboarding skills to the former President and Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago. So why was I not considered capable enough? How could I relieve the fears and concerns of potential employers and show them the very real benefits of having a blind person on staff?
I'm convinced that obstacles are placed in our paths to stimulate the mind into creative thinking, resulting in workable solutions. This led me to adopt a research approach to the situation. So I started a PhD program in Business Administration, with a specialization in Human Resource Management at the University of the West Indies. In the same way that I was the first blind student at Monroe College, presently I am also the first blind student completing the PhD program at this university.
The evolution of adaptive technology for people with disabilities is an important component to my studies and future work. As a blind user, these specialized tools give me a sense of independence and allow me to compete on a more level playing field with my sighted colleagues. Nonetheless, at times there are still compatibility issues. For example, reference is made especially to software applications that are not designed with accessibility features in mind for users of adaptive technology such as screen readers. This was the case during my recent studies with the SPSS software developed by IBM.
As you may know, the SPSS software is widely used for research by many colleges, universities, businesses and other research organizations. The program has many features that allow the user to conduct a variety of statistical analysis. When I started the PhD program, I was introduced to the SPSS software but, as mentioned, it was not compatible with my screen reader, JAWS. This was a huge challenge for me; hence, the reason for all of the creative thinking and networking that came into play.
I researched this situation and discovered that many blind and low vision people who are involved in research in other countries were also encountering the same compatibility issues with the software. Through the power of networking, I was able to obtain a great deal of knowledge on the subject matter, as well as communicate with some immensely helpful people such as Ms. Detra Bannister, CareerConnect Program Specialist at the American Foundation for the Blind. Through a CareerConnect mentor employed at IBM, she was able to link me to the team of researchers at IBM who are now currently working on this problem. I also found out that the researchers at IBM had developed a patch for version 19, which makes the software somewhat, but not fully, compatible with the JAWS screen reading software. I'm told that developments are being made to the SPSS software, making it accessible, that will be released in future versions.
Team work was also an effective tool. My statistics professor, Dr. Paul Dion, through his dedication, patience and unique skill set, taught me PhD statistics. His knowledge, experience and creative methods became a great resource for me as a blind student experiencing problems with statistical courses. One of several ways that my professor used to help me understand multivariate statistics and measurement methods was very tactile and as simple as arranging various shapes and sizes of pins on a cork board and linking them with rubber bands. His out-of-the-box thinking gave me a pictorial image of how the models looked first, and then he worked with me on using SPSS. His teaching technique taught me to identify and understand measured variable models, a SEM model and other aspects of statistical analysis, cross loading and identifying observations that were considered outliers in a data set. With this newfound knowledge, I can now use the SPSS software in conjunction with JAWS, to run a wide variety of analyses and, since SPSS does not allow JAWS to read data output, export the output file to Microsoft Excel where I am able to access the information.
This experience is just one example of how the combination of team work, adaptive tools and networking, as well as dedication and believing in oneself, will break down barriers and eliminate many obstacles, allowing people with disabilities to compete, achieve their goals and become effective leaders. There is no doubt that with proper training, access to technology and educational opportunities, disabled individuals can compete on an equal footing with their non-disabled peers and contribute fully to the economic betterment and social life of their communities.
My advice to other job seekers with vision loss is to be a fighter. Don't let others keep you from your dreams. Be someone who continues to brainstorm solutions to every problem. Missing out on a whole pool of capable, potential workers, I feel sorry for employers who are not enlightened about workers who are blind or visually impaired. If only they would open their minds, they would find some of their most loyal, productive and valuable team players.
So plan to be the one who educates the employer and makes the difference, paving a path for others.
The Contact: Alicia Lalite