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Blind Ambition

Getting an MCSE on Windows 2000 is hard enough when all your senses are working fine. But when one of them isn’t—especially sight—the task is doubly or triply hard.

That’s the challenge facing many students at iTec, a Little Rock, Arkansas-based company that started a program doing just that last year.

The catalyst for the program, according to Shannon Goins, director of training for iTec, was when “some people came in off the street and wanted training and were totally blind. Their complaint was ‘no one wants to accommodate us, no one knows how to accommodate us.’”

Neither did iTec. After some research, they partnered with Lions World Services for the Blind, also a Little Rock company, to offer MCSE training. The first class of three students graduated in November 2001, the second one started in August, and the third class is scheduled to get under way in February. The classes are nine to 10 months long.

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It takes about four times as long to train their blind or severely visually impaired students as it does students with normal vision. The reason, said Goins, is that “It’s not so much they’re having difficulty understanding, but learning how to navigate. They have to know how many times to tab to go to a certain thing…so that if I say everybody set up a (DHCP) scope, they need to learn how to do this efficiently.”

Blind students use a program called JAWS that reads the screen information to the user. Goins said to get an idea of what it would be like to train for your MCSE and be blind, “turn off your monitor and throw away your mouse.”

Taking the certification tests also presents unique challenges. One blind student who just barely failed 70-222, Migrating from NT to 2000, had a lot of trouble with the large number of drag-and-drop questions and diagrams on the test. Relying on his special reader doesn’t help much on those types of questions.

All three students (one is blind and two are severely visually impaired) from the first graduating class are still working toward their MCSEs, and are hopeful of obtaining them soon. In the meantime, they have all reached their most important goal: employment. All three have secured networking jobs with the Internal Revenue Service.

When it comes to finding IT work for blind students, Goins said it’s been a “mixed bag” so far. “When we first call and talk to them, some places have said ‘no way can we do this.’ We’re also trying to find employers that have positions where the students can fit in and not cause massive changes for employer,” which can be difficult, Goins explained. But she is starting to see some changes. “Initially there’s a lot of resistance (by employers), but once they have initial exposure to what they’ll need, it’s not a problem.”

As for the students themselves, it’s opening up a whole new world. Often, the blind work at lower-level jobs, which some employers think is all they’re useful for. Having an MCP or better, Goins said, can obliterate that perception. “Students tell us they’re so excited to see something at such a high professional level being offered to them. It’s a lot harder, but they can do it.”

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Virtualization Review.

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