Reprinted with permission from Diversity/Careers in Engineering & Information Technology, Summer/Fall 1996 Minority College Issue.

Emphasizing ability, tech students with disabilities get proactive

Keep a positive attitude, working engineers with disabilities advise. It's what you can do, not what you can't, that makes the difference.

By Mary Ellen Butler, Contributing Editor

Like all technical students, students with disabilities are gaining experience through co-op and internship programs and perfecting their interview skills - both important routes into the workforce. Each year programs are springing up on more college campuses to help disabled tech students prepare for full-time employment.

But some interviewers are still uncomfortable when assessing a disabled candidate's potential for doing the job. Virginia Stern, director of the Project on Science, Technology and Disability of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Washington, DC), knows how to deal with that. "In those instances, the interviewee is wise to take the lead by mentioning the disability and how it will not stand in the way," she says.

Candidates can broach the subject by asking interviewers some questions of their own, she says. For example, you might ask what the company's policy is on employees with disabilities.

About two percent of engineers report they have disabilities, according to the Engineering Workforce Commission of the American Association of Engineering Societies (Washington, DC). Their presence in the workforce reflects the wisdom of employers who ask candidates what they can do, not what they can't, to fill the requirements of the job.

Bannister of Boeing

Barry Bannister was recruited by Boeing (Seattle, WA) ten years ago, right out of the University of Washington where he earned his BSME. A payload systems engineer and a quadriplegic, Bannister works on flight control systems for Boeing's 747, 767, 777 and 737X wide-body airplanes.

Bannister's advice to students with disabilities: "Be patient and persistent" when interviewing for your first full-time job. "Emphasize what you can do and what you feel your strong points are. Mention your disability, but don't dwell on it." Bannister uses a mouse, a desktop computer and a laptop, all modified to meet his needs. "I take the laptop home and to meetings," he says. His particular adaptive technologies evolved over time. "It was a process of learning what works and what doesn't."

Bannister feels that Boeing has done a good job of accommodating engineers with disabilities. For example, access to Boeing's physical plant has improved - in part because of Bannister himself, who lobbied for modifications like curb cuts and automatic door openers. "I've seen a lot of improvements over the years, and I'd expect that to continue. With those changes comes a greater awareness of capabilities," he adds.

After a four-year freeze, Boeing expects to hire 200 to 300 engineers this year, according to company spokesman Peter Conte. The majority will be recent college grads. Boeing is especially interested in MEs and EEs proficient in structural design, tool design, aerodynamics and drafting.

Hood of Hillenbrand

Michael Hood was also recruited straight out of college. He came from Purdue University (Lafayette, IN) with a BSME (1991), an MSME (1993), and an MS in industrial administration (1995).

He went to work for Hillenbrand Industries, Inc (Batesville, IN), a diversified manufacturer with operating companies making, among other things, hospital beds, high security locks and caskets. Hood is an associate for strategy in the corporate planning department, part of an internal consulting team that supports senior managers on special projects of strategic importance.

Hood, who is deaf, makes extensive use of e-mail and a TDD relay service that Hillenbrand set up in his office. For conferences, seminars and large meetings, the company hires a court reporter to transcribe spoken language into a laptop computer. As the reporter types the notes, they appear simultaneously on Hood's laptop screen - a technology Hood helped install at Purdue when he was a student there. "That way, I am able to keep up with the conversations in real-time," he says. If real-time transcription is not necessary, an assistant records the meeting, then types a summary for him to read later.

For two-way communication, Hood's first preference is e-mail - except that "people have not yet gotten into the habit of regularly checking their e-mail."

He uses the TDD relay service to talk with managers at Hillenbrand's various operating companies. "I use voice carryover, which allows the other party to listen to my voice, while the relay operator transcribes their responses back to my TDD." Hood acquired speech skills as a young child.

His advice: as they prepare for the job search, students with disabilities should visualize themselves in the future, on the job. "Design an image of yourself which is inspirational. If this image is truly compelling, nothing can stop you - you will find ways to overcome obstacles."

Yuknis at NASA

As a computer engineering student at Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY), William Yuknis joined a co-op program at NASA. He worked at the space agency's Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, MD), in both its Flight Dynamics Div and its Small Payloads branch.

When he graduated in 1994, NASA offered him a full-time job in Small Payloads. Yuknis, who is deaf, now designs, builds and tests analog and digital circuits for satellite computer and ground communications systems.

To confer with coworkers he uses e-mail, software that allows real-time written conversation via computer, and a TDD relay. In one-on-one conversations he lip-reads and uses speech skills acquired as a child. For meetings he calls on the services of a staff interpreter, using American Sign Language for nontechnical meetings and Signed Exact English for technical material.

Yuknis counsels students with disabilities to show initiative during interviews to demonstrate they are capable of doing the job. In one of his own interviews he talked with the interviewer via a keyboard attached to a screen. The device, built by a friend, "utilized engineering knowledge and allowed effective conversation to occur," he says - and favorably impressed the interviewer. "This sort of thing catches their attention and helps abolish the stereotype that disabled people are helpless and dependent."

Written skills are extremely important for hearing-impaired students, Yuknis stresses. "Your success depends on how well you communicate with others."

He adds that his co-op experience was "tremendously valuable. Even though it took me longer than most college students to graduate, it was well worth it to gain the experience and confidence that I needed in my engineering field."

Honeywell's Johnson

Angie Johnson is a reliability, maintainability and systems safety engineer at the Military Avionics Minneapolis Operation of Honeywell Inc (Minneapolis, MN). She agrees that on-the-job experience through an internship or co-op program is an important way for students with disabilities to develop and demonstrate workplace skills.

An internship at Rosemount, Inc (Eden Prairie, MN) during her student days at the University of Minnesota led to a full-time job after she graduated with a BSEE. Johnson later worked for AT&T in Denver. She joined Honeywell in 1985, and currently helps design helmets that transmit and receive visual and auditory information.

Johnson has rheumatoid arthritis, which can cause pain and fatigue and forces her to use a cane. On particularly bad days, Honeywell has arranged for her to work at home, using a Mac Powerbook to log on to the company system.

Johnson advises students with disabilities to "self identify and self disclose so interviewers don't go too far in asking questions that aren't appropriate." By law, she points out, employers can't ask how you will manage your disability on the job until after they've offered a position and you've accepted.

Students should look for companies that not only encourage continuing education, but offer it in accessible formats, Johnson says. She recently got her MS in manufacturing systems engineering through National Technological University (Fort Collins, CO), which offers classwork exclusively by TV satellite transmission.

Johnson believes in "educating people about diversity and being receptive to differences." Living her belief, she has served on the Minneapolis Diversity Council, the Diverse Workforce Council of Honeywell's Minneapolis Operation, and the Honeywell Women's Council. She also helped develop a training module on diversity. All these activities were factors when Johnson was recently presented with her group's diverse workforce award.

Qualcomm's John Miller

Four years ago John Miller graduated from Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA) with an MSEE. Soon after, he went to work for Qualcomm (San Diego, CA), a wireless engineering and telecommunications company. He works on a voice coding team seeking to improve the audio quality of cellular phones. "I really enjoy my job," he says. "I work with lots of things that are visual and basically my blindness is just a nuisance."

College graduates with good qualifications who happen to be blind are faring reasonably well in today's tight economy, Miller thinks. "The blind folks I know who are looking for jobs are finding them," he says.

Miller suggests that students embarking on the job search might contact the National Federation of the Blind (Baltimore, MD), which offers a support network of professionals and other job seekers who are also blind. "This way you have someone who can hold your hand and talk over ideas with you," he says. Miller himself heads the federation's professional group of blind scientists and engineers.

More good advice: students should mention their disability during interviews - while reiterating their ability to do the job. "We've got to be competitive just like everyone else," Miller says.


Mary Ellen Butler is a freelance writer headquartered in Concord, CA.

HELP FOR STUDENTS, ON AND OFF THE CAMPUS

In their quest to become engineers and IT specialists, students with disabilities are getting help from on- and off-campus programs that offer physical, social and technical support along with access to internship and co-op opportunities. Three such programs are Do-It; the Regional Alliance for Science, Engineering, and Math for Persons with Disabilities; and NASA's Technical Experience for Select Students.

The Do-It (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Program. University of Washington, 4545 15th Ave NE, Rm 206, Seattle, WA 98105-4527. Phone: (206)685-DOIT. Fax:

Founded in 1992, DO-IT is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NEC Foundation of America, US WEST Communications and many other corporations, colleges and agencies. It enrolls disabled high school students interested in science, engineering and mathematical careers who will stay with the program all the way through college. Do-It offers Internet access and instruction, mentoring and summer study at U Washington.

The program currently includes twenty high school students and twenty-one college students. One two-year participant is Rachel Allen, a student at Columbia Basin College (Pasco, WA). She has interned at Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratory (Richland, WA) for the last two summers. Disabled by a stroke, Allen has only partial use of her right hand. She is interested in a career in the life sciences.

Another participant is Lloyd Gibson, who is hearing impaired. Gibson, a student at Spokane Community College, is interested in electrical engineering. He has an apprenticeship lined up at an EE firm in Washington, DC this summer.

Regional Alliance for Science, Engineering, and Mathematics for Persons with Disabilities (RASEM). New Mexico State University, PO Box 3566, Las Cruces, NM. Phone (505)646-3033.

RASEM is financed by a three-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant, and by corporate sponsors including Intel, Shell, Conoco, Exxon, Xerox and General Motors. Students are enrolled in RASEM programs at several state universities and two-year colleges in New Mexico and Texas. The program at NMSU enrolls about ten students, most of them freshmen. Students in the program can apply for financial grants, and can get assistance from personal care attendants, technical readers, interpreters, note takers and tutors.

NASA Technical Experience for Select Students. NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD 20771. Call Michael Hartman at (301) 286-5715(voice/TDD). michael.j.hartman.1@gsfc.nasa.com. is his e-mail address.

The NASA Tech Experience is an internship program in math, computer science, mechanical, aeronautical and electrical engineering designed for college students with disabilities. Women and minority students with disabilities are also eligible for NASA's internship programs targeting women and underrepresented minorities.