When Ronit Mazzoni read something in a high school biology book referring to a genetic counselor, she remembers a certain kind of excitement sparking in her brain. She had never heard of the profession, but loved biology and was fascinated by the whole concept of examining, scientifically, how and why one child might have blond hair and blue eyes and another blond hair and brown eyes. When high school seniors were required to shadow someone in their chosen profession, Mazzoni found a genetics counselor willing to have her hang around for the day, and her career goal was cemented.
Identifying genetic counseling as a career goal so early is somewhat unusual in the field, Mazzoni explained. Most of her professional peers said they learned of the career in college. Mazzoni's interest and determination never wavered—even though she knew of no other totally blind person who had chosen the same path. Mazzoni was born with a condition called microphthalmia, which essentially means the eyes are too small to be useful, and her blindness would throw a significant challenge into the mix as she pursued her dream.
Mazzoni attended Scripps College in Claremont, California, where she earned a BA in human biology. She says her grades weren’t amazing, but were good enough, and she began applying to graduate schools. (Incidentally, her humble disclaimer seems a bit off base. I first learned of her from an item recognizing her as a 2005 National Federation of the Blind Scholarship winner, so her grades must have been at least close to amazing!) She applied to 13 graduate programs and was interviewed by every one of them. In the end, she chose Northwestern University in Chicago for its program and its downtown location, which would give her access to excellent transportation. Although genetic counseling requires a master’s degree, not a medical degree, Northwestern's genetic counseling program is located on the school's medical campus. Mazzoni found this to be a perfectly matched environment. When she was younger, she had plenty of experience with representing science images with sticks and pipe cleaners and magnets and string—all those homespun and reliable tactile replicators that will be familiar to many AccessWorld readers. One essential piece of the genetic counselor’s job, however, is drawing a family pedigree, an essential, but highly visual tool. While she was a student at Northwestern, she was dating her husband-to-be, Dominic Mazzoni, who ran with the challenge and wrote an accessible computer program for the task. That program has served her well, throughout her graduate program, rotations, and now two successful positions in medical facilities.
When she was applying to graduate programs, from time to time she sensed the doubts others could have of her ability to succeed, though, of course, they were never blatantly stated. When she received a C for her pediatric rotation, the equivalent, in her words, of a failing grade at that stage of her education, she knew blindness was the problem. Indeed, the supervising genetics counselor who had given her the low grade expressed doubt that she could succeed in the field. Fortunately, she was given another rotation, in Milwaukee this time, where she received an A.
The Power of Networking
Back in her home state of California with a BA and MA, it was time to find a job. She was frequently interviewed and never hired. She spent all of 2008 applying, interviewing, and hearing nothing more. When she contacted a genetics counselor she had shadowed while in college, that professional pointed her in the direction of a potential opening at a medical facility in Los Angeles. “I think she may have talked to them about me,” Mazzoni recalls, “though I’ll never know for sure.”
What she does know for sure is that connections and networking are powerful. She is absolutely certain that the connection helped her land a job she could at last earn credibility in the usual way: with her performance.
In 2010, her first child, Alex, was born, and Mazzoni stayed out of the professional arena for a time, staying home to raise him and his sister, born three years later. By the time she was ready to reenter her profession, the family had moved to northern California. She again began sending resumes. There were plenty of interviews. Ronit Mazzoni would arrive with her white cane and her professional bag of tricks. When it seemed appropriate, she would bring out her braille notetaker to demonstrate how she kept patient notes. She would open her laptop and offer to demonstrate how she could draw a pedigree.
Sometimes potential employers were interested in the technology and sometimes not. She knew she was presenting well, but the offers weren’t coming.
Her mom suggested volunteering, something Mazzoni believes should be embraced by every blind person striving to find employment.
She volunteered at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, essentially working as an unpaid genetics counselor. Within a few months, a contract position became available and she was hired. When full-time positions were offered, the kinds of jobs with salaries and benefits, Mazzoni jumped at the opportunities and became fully employed.
Much of her job is providing patients with education and information. Pregnant women exploring potential risks to their unborn children or parents of children with developmental delays are her most frequent patients. She is immersed, at last, in her chosen profession and loving it. Like all young professionals, of course, she is also still always looking forward.
At this writing, Ronit Mazzoni is on maternity leave with her third child, a new daughter. She loves being a mom and loves being a professional and looks forward to returning to work in January.
Outside the Box
Mazzoni is one more successfully employed blind person, fortunate to be in the 30 percent of people with visual impairments who are employed. What, I asked her, have been the essential ingredients to finding this success?
Her immediate response was perseverance. “You have to keep working at your goal,” she says, “no matter how much doubt is being reflected your way in the attitudes of others.”
Next on her list of tools she could not have done without are braille and technology. Some of us might see these as two separate entities, but Mazzoni identified them in one breath, as if they were one and the same. She takes and reviews notes on a braille notetaker. She reviews patient histories in braille. And, on a personal note, she loves reading braille storybooks to her children. Technology, including the program her husband created to generate family pedigrees, enables her to keep pace with her colleagues.
Finally, she explained that an essential element has always been the willingness to push ahead, to go forward, even when she is tired and wants to quit. “You have to force yourself to just keep going, to try to make it work,” she says, because, as her history demonstrates, eventually it will.
As far as advice to those with visual impairments who are seeking employment in any field, Mazzoni has this piece of advice: Think outside the box. Volunteer. It often leads to a job. Use your connections. Figure out where your strengths and creativity lie, and don’t be afraid to use them.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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