by Gary Wunder
As we navigate the job market of the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is clear that small businesses are coming to play an ever-increasing role in the workforce of our country and that many of us who once would have worked for someone else will have to create our own businesses to thrive in this economy. A number of people have speculated about this change, opining that it is a good thing for blind people because they believe we will encounter less discrimination in working for ourselves than in trying to work for someone else. Still others say that the same kind of discrimination that keeps us from being hired in private- and public-sector jobs still exists when we go to look for bank loans, try to network to create business associates and a customer base, and strive to work with technology which is either inaccessible or at the least inefficient.
This article focuses on the former view, and the business we will highlight is Commtech LLC and its founder and owner-operator, Gabe Vega. Gabe created his company in 2008. But before we talk about his business, let’s focus first on the man.
Gabe was born in 1985, and from the first he was considered precocious. He graduated from high school at sixteen, went to a community college to study computer and information science, and at eighteen he became certified by the A+ program run by CompTIA, the Computing, Technology, and Industry Association. This means he can build, repair, install, and troubleshoot hardware. He is also certified in computer networking, meaning he can implement, design, and repair network computers in a corporate environment.
Though he finished with honors, getting a job was difficult. "I found that the attitude was that disabled people were less valuable than others. No matter what I said, no matter what I could show on paper, no matter what I could demonstrate, I never felt as though I was being treated as a first-class citizen." Beyond the issue of poor attitudes, Gabe realized he was living in a part of California rich with computer talent. At nineteen he decided to move to Phoenix and soon found a job working for the state of Arizona. He was a technical support specialist, a job in which he provided both remote and in-person repair. "It was a very rewarding job for one so young. I had a decent salary, got the opportunity to travel throughout the state, and was able to work with both state and federal computer systems.” He loved the technical challenges, loved exercising the analytical skills required to diagnose problems, and enjoyed the feeling that came with making the systems perform as expected. Of no small benefit were the learning and confidence that came from each success he could claim as his own.
But not all was rosy when it came to feelings about his job. He was feeling stressed and eventually realized that it was not the technical demands of the job but the interaction with fellow employees that was the source of his discomfort. "I found that I have no patience with office politics. I can follow directions as well as the next person, but I can't go in multiple directions at the same time. I would get one directive one day, a different one the next, and six different demands on the day following. I kept asking myself why I was putting myself through this. I concluded that I was too good at what I did to let stress get the better of me and that there must be a way to do what I enjoyed and was good at without suffering the slings and arrows of those who were intent on power games and turf battles."
To his surprise and relief, Gabe found that as a vendor/contractor he could do the same work that he was doing as an employee of the state. “There was no going to the office, no office politics, just doing the work I loved and thrived on completing."
Being an independent contractor meant that it was in Gabe’s best interests for him to get the simplest form of business incorporation, and he became incorporated as DBA (doing business as). With his own small business, he did the same technical work he was doing before and avoided the turf wars and office politics that had for some time been the major source of his stress.
Starting in 2005, things went well. Income was up tenfold, stress was down to an acceptable level, and Gabe felt as though he had found the ideal job. But with the downturn in 2008, many of the state and federal customers that had relied on him for service found their budgets cut. "When the bottom fell out in 2008, I found myself scrambling. It was quite a shock. All of a sudden those four-figure monthly checks began to fall, and I knew I had to do something in addition to contracting with the state and federal governments."
Eventually Gabe decided he had to change his business model. While he would continue to market his services to large customers, he knew he must include other groups who could benefit from his expertise and could pay for it. A change in corporate status was required for him to operate the kind of business that was taking shape in his head, and incorporating took considerable time and money that he was hard pressed to find. So too did finding office space, finding people, and putting in the telephones and servers required to conduct a nationwide business. In changing its focus to meet more needs from the private sector, the new business found that some of its contractors stayed and others left. The same was true with staff—some easily made the change, while others decided to go elsewhere. The new business focused less on big state, federal, and corporate customers and more on business-to-business services, as well as direct service to consumers.
For businesses, Commtech USA, which has become his brand name, provides website development, accessibility consulting, user experience evaluations, and accessibility checking to ensure Section 508 compliance. Commtech USA also provides computer network installation and troubleshooting services for businesses both large and small.
Despite his success, Gabe confesses blindness is still an issue in his mind, a fear he must work to overcome. "Sometimes my fear is still blindness. When I have a meeting with five important people (business owners, executives, and high-ranking board members), my fear wants to take control, and I start asking myself, ‘Will they take me seriously, and will I be convincing?’ But when that meeting comes the next day and I hit it out of the ballpark, the gratification I feel from that is wonderful.”
A big part of Commtech USA's business has evolved to serve consumers. One service is selling and exchanging cellular phones, a process many of us would consider visual given that most of the phones on the market today do not talk or have any nonvisual interfaces. Gabe has learned the menus for the phones he sells, and, by repeating the keystrokes necessary to navigate menus and choices, he is able to configure the phones, change SIM cards, and update settings required by the carrier his customer chooses. "Mostly phones are pretty similar. All of them have a menu key, a settings menu, a tools menu, and a call log. I rely on my memory, and, on the rare occasions when that fails me, I can always rely on Google if I know how to ask it the right question. If in doubt, as a last resort I can ask the customer in front of me to confirm that I am where I think I am by having him or her read me the screen.”
Gabe uses a screen reader to set up accounts, accept payments, and help customers choose plans that best meet their needs. "I don't depend on sighted people, but I do have them on call for the times when they are needed. I try to use only tools that are accessible or at least as accessible as they can be. This is my business, and, though sight is sometimes indispensable, it is important that I do as much of this work as I can.
“You wouldn't believe how gratifying it is to interact with the sighted public on a day-to-day basis in the consumer market and to know that they could not care less that you are blind. I tell them I am blind if we meet in person, and most generally they say, ‘Okay, can you do what I need done?’ I tell them yes, and they watch as I help them pay their bill or set up their phone. They may see me feel around my desk or hear my computer talk, but what is important to them is that they are the customer, and I can do what they are paying me to do. Blindness is off the table. To them the important fact is that money changes hands, and they leave with what they came to get or to do."
Whether blind people want to learn about assistive technology or learn to use office products, Commtech USA has a plan to fit their needs. For $60 a month a consumer can get training and technical support by telephone, and, for those times when there is no substitute for vision, the plan includes three sessions in which a person with sight connects to a customer’s machine, sees what is being displayed, and uses the mouse and keyboard to perform the inaccessible functions required.
“I’m an NFB member, and I’m on a number of our listservs to talk about jobs, rehabilitation, education, and how to train the trainers. I see the questions being asked: ‘Will they hire me? Will they accept me? What kinds of things can I do if I’m blind?’ I think we have to get out of this state of mind. The things I have accomplished as a blind man have exceeded my wildest dreams because, after all the questions, all the anxiety, and all the self-doubt, I just went out there and did it, keeping in mind that I am Gabe Vega, I am a technician, and, as long as I can do a job that satisfies my customers, my blindness isn’t going to hold me back.”