by Maurice Peret
The National Federation of the Blind Career Mentoring Program is bounding into our third year of collaborative work with state agencies to provide pre-employment transition services as outlined in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014. These critical services are offered through the powerful vehicle of mentoring with a positive philosophy of blindness that says that it is okay to be blind, highlights the necessity of mastery of essential alternative techniques of blindness, facilitates learning how to cope gracefully and respectfully with the myriad public misconceptions about blindness, demonstrates blending in equally with and rising up to the high expectations of our sighted peers, and a recognition that giving back to society serves as a quantifiable demonstration of the value of our contribution. These are the foundational principles of our program. Several state agency directors and administrators around our nation are taking advantage of this strategic partnership with the NFB, and many are reaching out to replicate it in their regions.
To date, the NFB Career Mentoring Program has provided pre-employment transition services and mentoring to some ninety-two transition-age youth from Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Virginia. Seventy-five active mentors have been integrated into the program as well as three local coordinators, who provided support for various activities including personal interactions through monthly mentee Zoom meetings and separately occurring mentor Zoom meetings; through nine in-person and three virtual Career Quest retreats, which have featured activities in career exploration, work-based learning experiences, tours of college campuses, exposure to job readiness skills, including nonvisual techniques for independence, and self-advocacy in conjunction with our annual advocacy day on Capitol Hill in collaboration with the National Association of Blind Students and NFB of Virginia’s Project RISE.
Several of these mentees have matriculated successfully into postsecondary college and university programs, others are actively pursuing employment, and the balance are still enrolled in high school. We held eight Career Quest weekend retreats so far with the number of transition youth participants ranging from eight to twenty-four. Quarterly retreats were held in cities from Pearl and Starkville, Mississippi, to Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, Baltimore, Maryland, and virtually anywhere and everywhere. These intensive weekend retreats focused on themes ranging from career exploration to enrollment in postsecondary education and training opportunities, and incorporated hands-on, work-based learning experiences that included:
Our robust and innovative programing is delivered essentially in three key ways. The first and most important component of our Career Mentoring program is our vast network of adult blind role models that are matched with our mentees based upon common career interests, educational pursuits or background, creative hobbies, and similar experiences. As a nationwide membership organization that encompasses numerous committees and divisions, we avail our young consumers access to state and national leaders of blind students, state and national conferences and conventions, a vast array of helpful resources to build a peer network, and a knowledge base for collective problem solving and advocacy. It is our sincere belief that the mentoring relationships that are cultivated and nurtured contribute substantively to lifelong learning and toward living the lives our blind and low-vision consumers want.
Largely because of our sustained engagement with these mentees beyond the audio/video conferences, the impact that the program is having is readily observed from the first weekend retreat until the present. In addition to the specific pre-employment transition services that transition consumers were availed of through the Zoom conferences, many developed new skills while traveling, some for the first time ever, through an airport and on an airplane. Following discussions, for example, at the “Take Charge of Your Voice and Your Choices” Career Quest conference, mentees from Mississippi noticed and remarked on how they were treated by the public in the form of an imposition of over-the-top assistance. This sparked a lively conversation about self-advocacy that occurred during the monthly mentee Zoom meeting the day after their return from the retreat.
The second component of our NFB Career Mentoring Program consists of hosting monthly audio/video conferences. Using the Zoom platform, we work on the development of specific employment transition skills with targeted objectives. We use a combination of pre-recorded presentations, open-ended questioning, knowledge-based assignments, and active engagement between the coordinators and students. The following are examples of some of the audio/video conferences.
This session featured a recorded presentation from Nimer Jaber, a blind mentor from California who works for the Google Corporation, who provided students with a project management framework that they could use in pursuit of their vocational and postsecondary pursuits. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), “Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to a broad range of activities in order to meet the requirements of a particular project.” There are five phases of project management, and if the lifecycle provides a high-level view of the project, the phases are the roadmap to accomplishing it. The five phases of project development/management are:
Mentees discussed each phase and applied them to their individual projects. For example, one student related the project management structure to a physical science final school assignment due by end of summer involving research and a presentation on the COVID-19 pandemic. This student is pursuing her studies in criminology forensics. Another mentee related the execution phase to distributing tasks and roles in a team collaboration, dividing them into workgroups, and executing resources such as money, budget, and costs. She applied this to her endeavor of writing a book.
This session on the importance of advocating for accommodations in high school and college featured a recorded presentation from blind mentors Trisha Kulkarni, president, and Elizabeth Rouse, member of the board of directors, of the National Association of Blind Students, a division of the National Federation of the Blind. This presentation included short role-playing scenes that provided students with techniques and strategies to self-advocate for appropriate accommodations, and how to distinguish from unnecessary special treatment in high school and college.
One college student studying to become a teacher found one of the scenarios quite relatable to her own school situation. She described the career mentoring program as essential in filling the gaps of support from her community and family. She found the mentors and coordinators to be useful resources for answering questions and providing advice on how to deal with critical life circumstances.
Discussion questions included:
One student described how she was exempt from taking an exam in elementary school because it was unavailable in a format made accessible to her. Were she confronted with a similar incident today, this young lady said she would refuse this form of special treatment, recognizing that she was being denied an important learning opportunity.
Mentees discussed the value of being an active participant in their own IEP and IPE meetings and learned how to effectively advocate for reasonable college or other postsecondary accommodations. Mentees were encouraged to describe specific accommodations or tools which they planned to add or reinforce in their own IEPs or accommodation meetings in the upcoming school year, and to describe what strategies they would use to advocate for them.
Other examples of our skills development topics include:
In order to effectively address the impact of COVID-19 on the lives and learning environments of the students, we were dynamic in restructuring the focus and format of our Zoom conferences. During our monthly audio/video conferences we engaged with the mentees to help them deal with the new reality of remote learning by taking inventory of how they were accessing these educational tools and whether accessibility barriers existed. We learned that most of our college-enrolled mentees were accessing their coursework through the Canvas learning management platform as well as the Zoom audio/video conferencing tool. Several mentees referenced their struggle to focus on their academics during COVID-19. They were encouraged to pace themselves and create a schedule for their daily tasks, including tracking daily accomplishments using lists labeled completed, in progress, deadlines, and challenges. Mentees were also encouraged to notify their mentors as well as program coordinators if their grades became adversely affected by inaccessibility due to COVID-19. Our local coordinators used the time prior to the Zoom meetings to connect with each of the mentees to assess how they were coping with interruptions in their educational programs and to help them implement strategies to maintain a reasonable and practical momentum. In addition, we shared a free download resource, the three-hour audiobook on Zoom, Meet Me Accessibly—A Guide to Zoom Cloud Meetings from a Blindness Perspective by Jonathan Mosen.
The third component of our NFB Career Mentoring Program consists of retreats that combine several learning modules into chunks of interactive sessions over a weekend. These were previously held in-person, in-state at a local conference center. However, as the proverbial saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Our new reality has required us to develop virtual learning modules to approximate a comparable level of engagement and learning that we would have achieved from the in-person experience.
An example of this is our fall 2020 Career Quest retreat entitled “Self-Advocating on the Job and in Life,” consisting of virtual modules that engaged the students in group improvisational role-play scenarios and debates. The retreat took a deep dive into self-advocacy and self-determination, and it featured a dynamic panel of young blind professionals and involved discussion and completion of a work-values inventory, exploration of career goals and planning next steps, and mentee journaling throughout the weekend.
Although present circumstances have forced us to alter how we do our work, we have neither ceased nor slowed down a bit. Since schools across the country were closed and instruction moved into virtual learning platforms due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our blind and low-vision students needed the support of blind mentors more than ever before. Thankfully, our monthly mentee Zoom meetings had already been in place for some time. We look forward to taking our programming to the next level in 2021 to maintain and nurture a momentum that we believe will continue to equip these young blind and low-vision consumers with a competitive edge in education, employment, and personal success and independence. We are ramping up our Zoom learning platform and plan to expand our Career Quest retreats to additional states, including Illinois. We welcome all interested transition youth to complete our online mentee application at https://nfb.org/menteeapplication. We are also constantly in search of positive blind mentors. Candidates should complete the online application at https://nfb.org/mentorapplication.
Without the countless volunteer time and energy from our mentors, the NFB Career Mentoring Program could not thrive. Additionally, a tremendous debt of gratitude is owed to those who have served tirelessly as local coordinators: Ellana Crew from Maryland, Chelsea Page and Carrie Johnson from Mississippi, and Shane Buresh and Kelly Coleman from Nebraska.