2006 Conference General Sessions





Cliff Winters
American Foundation for the Blind, CareerConnect

949 3rd Avenue, Suite 200
Huntington WV 25701

Day Phone: 888-824-2184
Fax: 304-523-8656
Email: cwinters@afb.net

The statistics are grim: a 55% unemployment rate among people with visual impairments. But for a generation that has unprecedented access, there are unprecedented resources for career development through the new social connectivity of the Internet. What kinds of jobs are out there, and who’s doing them? What career-specific preparation would make you more employable? What pieces do you lack to your-or your clients’-transition puzzle? For anyone changing careers, or starting a new career, or looking for that first “break” into the world of employment, being informed and prepared for the next stage in his or her career development is important. For those with vision loss, it’s essential.

If you’re stepping out onto the employment stage, or if you’ve already been out there for some time, one thing’s for sure: you can’t do a one-man show! There are many people involved in an individual’s preparation for the workforce-her parents, his friends, her teachers, his counselors (and let’s not forget their future employers)! And one group isn’t resourced in the same ways that the others are. If one is an employer, there are legal issues. If one is a parent, there are support issues.

That’s also where CareerConnect now begins: categorized content which is tailored for the job seeker, the employer, the professional, the friend or family member-even for kids (because transition begins at the earliest ages, whether or not one is intentional about it)! And, of course, a special section directed toward those who form the heart of the CareerConnect program: our over 1,000 mentors. These are people-themselves; all, with some level of vision loss-who are already performing some 300 different kinds of jobs in every US state and nearly every Canadian territory in North America.

To navigate, content sections form the headers under each user category, not unlike the way customized menus might be offered to different restaurant patrons with different needs. For example, if you click on, say, For Employers, your navigation bar provides headers to discussions about accommodation, legal considerations, the aging workforce, arid contacts of particular value to employers, along with a detailed examination of the benefits of hiring workers with vision loss.

If, however, you were to select For Family and Friends, you’d be offered a specialized tour of the site, without assuming that you were altogether familiar (so to speak) with the blindness field. Knowing that you’d be curious about services available to the blind, you’d be offered an overview of the types of professionals working in the field of visual impairment. Knowing that you’d probably be wondering what the future held, you could explore the variety of career options and career paths that people with vision loss have
already taken.

If you then want to access the mentor database, to find out through experience what no amount of theory can tell you, any user-registered or not-can perform a mentor search. Would you like to talk with other blind professionals in your state or city? Only mentors with your same level of vision? How about people who share your affiliations with other organizations? Along with a wild-card, keyword-searchable database of job titles and job tasks, you can cross-reference any or all of these other categories to find that perfect mentor-which itself further refines and hones the user’s specific goals, further educates her about her chosen field, and further encourages her to take ownership of the job search process.

And then, in the actual course of mentor contact, CareerConnect is able to demonstrate sensitivity both to autonomy-and to security-needs that previously would have been impossible. Once the user has registered, she can not only search for mentors autonomously, but also contact them autonomously-without recourse to a third party. And that contact requires no personal information to be shared, so potential security risks are nearly eliminated.

This process works through the functionality of the database. Mentors, when they register, submit their email address, as do users. When a user clicks on the non-identifying number for a mentor whose job description suits her needs, the website presents a secure email page into which the user can input whatever user query she may have. The system then accesses that mentor’s email address and forwards it, with the notification of how to send a reply-again, with no identifying information-through the database and back to the user. This extra security measure, obviously, has very great and positive implications for a program that encourages school-aged users.

From any screen on the CareerConnect site, you are able to search out mentors who can give specific career guidance as a visually impaired peer. Imagine the potential value: an employer who’d like to talk with a professional in her own industry about the
accommodations he uses, a pro who needs that key piece of information for her client’s IPE that only an industry-native would have, a mother who wants to be reassured that her child’s dream of becoming a NASA scientist isn’t impossible, a worker who would love to change careers but doesn’t know where to start. If one considers the combined experience, knowledge, skills and histories of over 1000 working men and women, CareerConnect can claim to offer potentially limitless resources for the education and preparation of job-seekers, along with the multitudes of other people involved in their working lives.

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