The Braille Monitor                                                                                               __May 1997

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Job History of a Working Mom

by Beth Finke

From the Editor: The following little article first appeared in JOB Bulletin, a cassette publication of the Job Opportunities for the Blind Program, which the NFB conducts jointly with the U.S. Department of Labor. The piece is highly instructive because it so clearly demonstrates that effective job hunting is comprised in large part of common sense, solid preparation, and determination to do a good job. This is the way Beth Fink describes her employment history:

When I lost my sight ten years ago, I also lost my job as the assistant director of the Study Abroad Office at the University of Illinois. The job required a lot of counseling of undergraduate students and a lot of phone work. It was reasonable to think that I could have kept that job even while I was learning new Braille, orientation, and mobility skills. But I wasn't thinking reasonably at the time. When my boss said I couldn't do the job without being able to see, I figured she must be right.

During my involuntary unemployment, I finished rehabilitation at the Illinois Visually Handicapped Institute, had a baby, volunteered on a local suicide prevention hotline, ran a small-time day-care program in our house, and played the piano in an old-time fiddle band.

After a few years of this, my son started preschool, and I got antsy and started looking for a job outside the house. While visiting a nearby church one Sunday, I asked the person sitting next to me to read the bulletin out loud. Among the notices was one explaining that the church was looking for a volunteer coordinator.

I called and asked for an interview. I didn't tell anyone over the phone that I was blind. The receptionist told me what the job entailed: about ten hours a week of work rounding up volunteers by phone or in person at Sunday services. She gave me a time for my interview, and I started thinking about how I could do the job without being able to see.

I had a talking computer at home. I figured I could use it to keep track of church members and their telephone numbers. I could stand up at church services and make announcements about volunteer opportunities and ask interested people to seek me out after church. I could record their names and interests on tape or Braille them for my records.

I arrived at my interview with these ideas. The co-pastors I talked with were very warm and friendly, but I could tell they were skeptical. I made a suggestion: try it for three months, and if after that time I was unhappy with the position or was unqualified, they could let me go with no hard feelings. They agreed, we shook hands, and I was hired.

I passed the three-month audition and worked as the church's volunteer coordinator for over a year. I had a desk at the church office, but I chose not to use it, preferring to work from home with my talking computer. I was not by nature a churchgoer, but every Sunday I'd get up early to use a guided clipboard to print out by hand the events and times for which volunteers were needed. I'd make an announcement at church, pass the clipboard around during the service, and later have a volunteer read me the results.

I used my white cane to walk to weekly staff meetings, and I started doing something former volunteer coordinators hadn't thought of: I attended church committee meetings. My attendance at these meetings served as a reminder that I was there to help find volunteers for committee work too. Another new thing I did was write an article about volunteer opportunities in each monthly church newsletter.

I had worked at the church a year when I decided to go to the Seeing Eye and get a guide dog. The church board allowed me the month off work for training, but they said they would really miss my work while I was gone, and they meant it.

Shortly after I returned to work with my new guide dog, I found out that one of the church office assistants was leaving to take a job at the university in town. I asked her to lunch so that we could brainstorm about who could fill her position. She interrupted me soon after I started going over a list of potential candidates. "This is silly," she said; "You're the one who should take this job." The idea had never occurred to me; her job seemed too complicated and way over my head. But once we talked it out, I realized she was right. I should apply for her position.

I wrote a proposal explaining how I would supervise college student interns, oversee the rental of the office and theater space the church owned, answer the phones, and take messages for other staff members. The new job would require me to work at the church rather than at home, so I offered to buy myself a laptop computer with speech output. I could use it both at home and at the office. I would need it especially to keep track of rental space at the church.

The Board accepted my proposal, and soon after they saw what a good job I could do, they reimbursed me for the laptop computer. Years later, when the church decided to use Macintoshes in each office, they provided speech synthesis for the computer in my office. This job paid well, especially for part-time work. The part-time aspect was good for me, allowing me time at home with my son when he needed me.

In 1995 my husband's job transferred us to the Chicago area. I gave myself three months to get used to our new house, enroll my son in school, and teach my guide dog our new town. Then I started looking for work.

We subscribed to the local paper, and my husband was happy to read the classified ads out loud onto a cassette for me to listen to again and again if I needed to. I applied for a job baking bread at a local bakery, but I'm afraid Pandora (my guide dog) scared them off. Next I applied for a position in the ticket office of a local minor league baseball team. I sent a letter explaining who I was and my resume detailing all the duties I'd performed at my last job. I also included a page of Braille, just to get their attention.

It worked. I got an interview and was hired on the spot. I've worked in the ticket office at the Kane County Cougars for over a year now. Again, my work is part-time, allowing me time at home with my son when he's not in school or summer camp.

At work I'm responsible for keeping track of groups coming to games for special outings. Each day, before I come to work, my supervisor fills a cassette tape with names and numbers of groups to be called. The cassette recorder is waiting for me at my desk when I get to the office, and I get right to work on the phone. Most often it's a simple call to remind group leaders that they owe us money for tickets. Sometimes groups need information about where to gather before singing the national anthem, where to line up to throw out the first pitch, that sort of thing.

This job doesn't pay particularly well, but the benefits suit me: free tickets to home games, free admission to a local recreational center. (The team has a bartering agreement with the center. I go there almost daily to swim laps in the indoor pool.) There are also free giveaways if there are any extras after games. Our closets at home are full of inflatable bats, mini-coolers, even whoopee cushions--all adorned with the Kane County Cougar logo. You can't imagine the money I save on birthday presents for nieces and nephews this way!

To sum up, if someone were to ask me how I managed to find jobs without being able to see, I'd have three main answers:

1. I was prepared for my interviews. I found out as much as I could about the job duties and came to each interview already equipped with ideas about how I would fulfill the duties of the job.

2. I had a track record. Even when I applied for the volunteer-coordinator job, I had my work on the
suicide-prevention hotline under my belt. I reported to my potential employers how I had used my talking computer and Braille to keep notes and fill out required forms as a volunteer. It made them feel more comfortable hiring me once they knew someone else had already worked successfully with me.

3. I made it easy for people to employ me. I never threatened employers or make them feel obligated.
I just arrived at the interview well dressed, open to questions, and equipped with answers. I made it obvious that I was eager to work, even at a low salary. I liked leaving interviews with employers wondering why they wouldn't hire me.

One more thing about that low salary. My husband is employed, so I have the luxury of surviving on a small salary. In the case of my volunteer-coordinator job, however, it wasn't long after I started working that a small salary became a large one. This could happen at my current job as well. I think once you do a good job for a while, employers are reluctant to let you go. They'll pay you more to stay.

I do feel underemployed since losing my sight, but I figure that I'm just one of millions of part-time workers who feel this way. Once my son is older, I hope to find a more challenging full-time job. I anticipate that this job search will be more difficult than my search for low-paying, part-time work has been. I am hopeful, however, that recommendations from my former employers will be a big help--can't hurt.