American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Special Issue: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) CAREERS AND PASSIONS
by Kane Brolin
From the Editor: Kane Brolin is a self-employed certified financial planning practitioner and is the proprietor of Brolin Wealth Management. His company provides money management and financial advice to individuals, families, and businesses. Kane is vice president and cofounder of the Michiana Chapter of the NFB of Indiana. He lives in Mishawaka, Indiana, with his wife, Danika, and their three children. Kane and Danika have been licensed foster parents since 2010.
The scene had become all too familiar over the past twelve years, ever since my first college graduation ceremony. I waited in an office after a computerized aptitude test and my second interview for the job. I fully expected to hear, "We're just not sure. We like your tenacity and drive. Yes, the master's degree is very impressive. But we just don't think you are the best fit at this time. Good luck." In the best-case scenario, I would get a pat response such as, "We only have a few openings for this position at any given time. We have already exceeded this month's quota. We'll call you next month when openings come up again."
Instead, what I heard sent a wave of joy coursing through me. "Mr. Brolin, we have chosen to offer you the job," said Bill, the vice president in charge of the field office. "There will be a lot that you and we have to adapt to. But there's no question you are qualified. Now we just need to figure out your start date, whose management circle you will be a part of, and how to adapt our processes to fit the tasks you'll need to perform."
The job? Financial advisor. The company? American Express Financial Advisors. My experience doing that kind of work? Absolutely none. Yet I had the job.
Soon after I began work in 2000 I realized that this would not be a job "advising" anyone. During the first few months after I passed the licensing exams, I was assigned to sell securities and insurance. My job entailed talking persuasively on the phone to as many people as my fingers could dial. I set up appointments; asked intimate questions about people's finances, hopes, and dreams; and tried to get people to hire me to write financial plans or move money into investment products or insurance policies. If I didn't get enough paying business--well, I couldn't think about the alternative. Failure was not an option.
Thanks to a lot of hard work and the grace of God, I can say many years later that I am still employed--in fact, self-employed. I work as a financial planner and broker/dealer representative who happens to be totally blind.
Fast forward to November of 2005. I found myself climbing into a car--Bill's car. This was the same Bill who had given me my first job offer in the industry back in 2000. Our company name had changed, and Bill and I were now each franchise owners of equal stature, responsible for independent financial planning practices in neighboring towns. We had just traveled together to Tinley Park, Illinois, just south of Chicago, to sit for a grueling, day-and-a-half-long board examination. If we passed, we would have the right to call ourselves Certified Financial Planner Practitioners.
During the CFP board exam I didn't benefit from accessible technology, or any technology at all. Nothing was allowed in the testing room with me except some paper, a No. 2 pencil, a simple four-function calculator without speech output, and Vito. Vito was a reader/recorder who had been hired to read me the questions, operate the calculator according to my directions, and take down my answers. I'd never met him before.
Though he had no experience in the financial services industry, Vito read me the exam questions with painstaking thoroughness. Dutifully he circled each answer I selected. The CFP board exam is all about solving cases drawn from real life. For this old-school exam, I had to work out in my head which data I needed to understand from several pages of background material. I had to ask Vito to read or re-read only the information I really had to know, leaving out the "noise" that had been planted in the client data to trip me up.
Seven weeks later I waited nervously at my computer. The results of the exam had been released. Thousands of people tried to access the same site at the same time across the country. At last I learned that I had passed. I could now hold the CFPÒ marks. I was the first totally blind person to pass the CFP board exam in the memory of any of the people who had arranged or overseen my test.
Today, more than ten years later, I still cherish that moment. Whenever I feel annoyed as I sit through a tedious continuing education session, I conjure up the joy I felt in January 2006 when the word pass appeared on my computer screen. I am thankful that nothing I go through today is a recurrence of that stomach-churning CFP board exam.
As a financial adviser, I have found a way to make a living for myself and my family. Even in a recessed or stagnant economy, I serve individuals and businesses as a CFPÒ Practitioner. I manage money, give proactive tax advice, sell life or long-term care insurance, and help design or implement charitable gifting plan or death settlements.
None of my work would be possible without a firm foundation in STEM. Without mathematical and computer literacy, I would never have passed the board exam or other licensing tests. Without overcoming my fear of numbers, I wouldn't be able to talk meaningfully to clients about bond prices, Federal Reserve policy, price-to-earnings ratios, standard deviation, or sustainable withdrawal rates.
By no means am I a biogeneticist or an astronaut or an electrical engineer. Back in the ‘80s I wanted to be a great writer, or perhaps the next generation's answer to Peter Jennings. I was a broadcaster and a journalist by training. I was much more at home with a tape recorder or a novel than with a graphing calculator or an oscilloscope. However, my father, a mechanical engineer, had no tolerance for an effort less than 100 percent. Thanks to him I learned to think logically and do math with competence.
Since talking calculators were not yet available, I learned arithmetic on the Cranmer abacus. From an incredibly tough but fair resource teacher named Miss Wagner, I learned that no excuse was good enough to make up for a lax attitude or a sloppy mistake. And there was Braille, Braille, Braille! Instead of playing on a Sunday afternoon, I sometimes could be found in front of my Perkins Brailler, producing columns of digits, figuring sums and differences and quotients. My dad looked at every page to make sure that my columns were properly justified on the right side.
That same Perkins Brailler turned up in my high school math classes, probably to the annoyance of the students around me. They had to listen to its rattle as I hammered out algebra problems line by line. The abacus would not do; to receive credit I had to show my work. And yes, I had to wait longer than anybody else for my homework or tests to be graded. I had to wait until the traveling resource teacher could check my work and hand-print her transcription between my lines of hand-embossed Braille.
In the early ‘90s I discovered that the broadcast industry did not love me enough to pay me a living wage. I realized I could get into a top-flight business school. By then I had purchased a computer, and I could use certain functions to automate some of my work. I had learned to use Lotus 1-2-3 and some Unix-based stat programs. But I found it incredibly frustrating to complete homework in numbers-intensive classes such as cost accounting, finance, and operations management.
Sometimes in graduate school I felt a disturbing sense of déjà vu. I had to hire human reader/recorders, much as I had done in the early 1980s. I needed readers to record case packets and inaccessible textbooks on cassette tapes and to read test questions and write down my answers. My most advanced calculator was a program that came with my Braille 'n Speak. I did not have a portable scanner, and certainly I had no smartphone or mobile apps.
Even in the highly rarefied environment of Northwestern University, hardly anyone felt like reading quantitative material or helping me write out financial equations--not even for money. I turned to a unique tool that has nearly been forgotten: the Optacon. Developed in the 1970s, the Optacon is a device that turns characters on the printed page into vibrating pins on a tactile array. It did not enable me to read the volume of case studies I needed to cover in my master's program. Nevertheless, this old-school, print analog reading machine gave me a firm grasp of the charts and mathematical symbols that were critical to my understanding of a problem.
Did I excel in numbers-heavy classes? Absolutely not, especially compared with the geniuses who studied physics or engineering along with a full load of graduate business classes. But the point is, I passed. When I stood up on graduation day to receive the diploma I had sweated over for two long years, I was embarrassed when some people in the audience gave me a standing ovation. In that moment I began to understand that even if those around me don't understand blindness, they respect someone who takes on a difficult challenge and overcomes the odds. In my opinion, this is the most important message you can send to a blind child--or any child, for that matter.
My job is not dominated by numerical analysis as if I were an actuary, nor by chemical reaction as if I worked in a laboratory. But since my parents and teachers insisted that I take a full load of classes including geometry, algebra, trigonometry, statistics, physics, and chemistry, I can talk credibly about nearly any topic with a prospective client. Furthermore, I can approach a new challenge with hope instead of dread. That confidence is something STEM learning has given me.
What is my advice to a young person considering a career in financial services? If you can figure out how to sell with reasonable effectiveness, you'll never be forced into a subminimum wage job. You'll always be able to prove your worth by the dollars you bring in. To be credible as a sales or servicing professional in the financial world, though, you'll need to embrace STEM to some degree. Even if you are an English or history major in college, take more math, science, and computer courses than your academic advisor says you need. Attack STEM courses without fear. Today STEM courses can be undertaken much more easily by a blind person than when I went through school. Thanks to spreadsheets, talking scientific calculators, Web-based emulators, and smartphone apps, the student of today will need to rely on human reader/recorders far less than I did. Thanks to the work of E.A.S.Y. LLC and advances in 3D printing, a blind science or math student soon will have more tactile access to atomic structures and complex geometric patterns than ever before. Thanks to mathematical translation tools such as LaTeX, the blind student can communicate almost in real time with his or her sighted teacher, translating seamlessly between text-based Microsoft Word documents and symbol-laden math equations. The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) offers an impressive array of math learning tips and resources, thanks to the tireless efforts of Susan Osterhaus. (Susan, I've never met you, but please never retire!) Even if you live in the tiniest town, you can ask the whole world for a solution to any STEM-related problem you encounter as a blind student. Probably you can get the solution you need by evening if you tap into the blogs and listservs that are populated 24-7 by blind folks who have been there and done that. At the core of a blind student's learning in every discipline, there's no substitute for Braille, Braille, Braille.
All the high technology in the world won't make you a successful student or worker in the STEM fields unless you approach problem solving with a positive attitude and a genuine curiosity. Conversely, not even the complete absence of high technology can keep you out if you approach life with sufficient creativity and tenacity. Just ask fellow Federationist Curtis Willoughby, an electrical engineer with AT&T who got there long before the personal computer became a part of anybody's home décor. To my amazement, a blind mathematician in the United Kingdom, working clear back in the 1700s, is quoted as saying, "If the blind lover of mathematics persists, it is possible that in time he may be more at home in these higher reaches of mathematics than his seeing rivals, and may dispense even more readily with external aids. Geometry is the proper science for the blind because no help is needed to carry it to perfection. But such heights are attainable only to a chosen few."
That well may be. But even those of us in the blind community who don't attain the heights of mathematical or scientific perfection can use STEM knowledge as a stepping-stone to a decent living. STEM can play a vital role as we come to live the lives we want and as we teach our children to do likewise. The freedom to pursue opportunity drives me to serve my clients, to be there for my family as a husband and father, and to pay it forward to others in my community.