American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The World of Work      CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

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Language Was the Key

by Karolline Austen

Karolline Austen wears a company polo shirt.From the Editor: Often a particular skill or area of expertise can lead to employment. In this article Karolline Austen explains how her facility with languages helped her build her career.

I grew up in Brazil, and I began working at the age of seventeen. Brazil has "quota legislation," which means that any company with more than one hundred employees is required to hire people with disabilities. Unfortunately, though, companies aren't required to provide any reasonable accommodations. You can get hired, but unless you're very proactive, you may end up sitting at a desk and doing nothing all day.
As a young woman I started volunteering with the National Organization for the Blind, Brazil's leading blindness agency. In my volunteer work I often had to translate written material from English into Portuguese. I knew a little bit of English, but I wanted to become much more proficient.

I asked the president of the National Organization of the Blind to help me find a way to study English in the US. With the help of the World Blind Union, I got the opportunity to attend the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) in 2014.

I arrived in Ruston speaking almost no English. I spoke some Spanish, but I avoided using it so I could focus on building my English proficiency. Whenever I learned a new word or phrase, I wrote it down. My personal glossary grew bigger and bigger. I also worked on learning the United English Braille code (UEB). Braille instruction was part of the program at LCB, but I started a Braille club for students who wanted extra instruction. The students helped me build my skills in both Braille and English.

In 2015 I entered the master's degree program in rehab teaching at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. I graduated in 2016 and got a job as an ESL (English as a second language) instructor at SAAVI, the rehabilitation center for the blind in Phoenix, Arizona.

After a year in Arizona I got married, and I ended up moving back to Louisiana. My husband, Conrad Austen, had just started working at LCB. Based in Ruston, I flung myself into the work of looking for a job.

The internet was a tremendous help in my job search. The Indeed job-search website turned out to be a fantastic resource. It was wonderfully accessible. Since Ruston is a relatively small community with limited opportunities, I looked for jobs that would allow me to work virtually. Some of the opportunities that came up were surprising, even ludicrous. I actually got an offer to answer the phone for a company that dealt with people who had had their cars towed away!

Since I am bilingual I decided to look for a job as a Portuguese interpreter. At one point I was called for a phone interview while I was in the car, driving from Arizona to Louisiana. I didn't want to risk missing the opportunity, so I told my fellow passengers to stay quiet, and I did the interview then and there.

The interview took me to the next step in the hiring process, an evaluation of my skills in medical interpretation. To my dismay I failed the assessment. I didn't realize that my previous experience as a simultaneous interpreter wasn't quite the same as the work I would have to perform as a consecutive interpreter. I'd been in such a hurry to take the test that I didn't give myself enough time to study. I felt very sad, but I remained highly motivated. The company, called Propio, encouraged me to study and take the test again. I threw myself into studying and finished the twelve-week course on medical interpreting in just one week! The next time I took the test, I passed.

My job involved interpreting for doctors who had Portuguese-speaking patients. After I got that first position I found other interpreting jobs.

One time I was invited to present at a job fair for people with visual impairments. I decided to test the accessibility of the career websites before my presentation. I tested out a website by applying for a position. Yay! The website was accessible—so much so that my application went through, and I was offered another job as a Portuguese interpreter, this time with a company called CyraCom.

It often happens that one job leads to another. My job as a medical interpreter branched out into other areas. I was hired to test the Indeed website to make sure its accessibility features are working properly. Today I am no longer doing direct medical interpretation. I work as a language operations manager at AMN Healthcare, a company with four thousand employees. My language skills opened the door, but I have been able to build upon each opportunity and take on new challenges.

I am so lucky to be with AMN! My coworkers; my supervisor, Justin Rice; and the vice-president of my department, Kat Jackson really see me as a leader and understand that blindness is not a characteristic that defines me or my future. Every time my department releases updates to a platform or makes changes to the way we have to do something, they ask me to test things first to make sure they are accessible for me. If we encounter any accessibility issues, they find ways to make things 100 percent accessible.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating effects around the world. Ironically, however, it has opened many opportunities for blind job-seekers. Lack of transportation used to be an enormous barrier for blind job-seekers unless they lived in a city with a good public transit system. COVID opened up a world of options in the virtual workplace. We still have to have strong, marketable skills, but the virtual environment gives us more opportunities to put those skills to use.

Assistive technology is another factor that plays a very important role in the life of blind employees. In my day-to-day activities as a manager, I use a combination of tools, including screen readers and Braille displays. It amazes me and it fills my heart with joy to see how much technology for the blind has improved and continues to get better. When my employees send me pictures of documents, for example, I can convert those images into text. When I am working on their performance review with them, I utilize spreadsheets and common applications that are also used by people with no disabilities. Thanks to Braille and text-to-speech products, I am able to do my job like anyone else.

Certainly some young people are less bold than I was when I launched my career. There are definitely specific tips and tricks that I would recommend to help parents guide them on their own journey. The most important one is to find a national organization. Here in the United States we have the National Federation of the Blind. Each state has its own affiliate, and each affiliate offers resources, meetings, literature, and instruction to guide blind children and adults in the right direction.

Too often I hear blind job-seekers say, "I really want to start working, but my rehab counselor still hasn't found me a job." Your rehab agency can be a good resource, but your counselor cannot and should not do all the work for you. After all, it's your career and your life—and your happiness and independence as well! 
You can find an excellent article featuring Karolline Austen at https://www.amnhealthcare.com/amn-insights/language-services/blog/enabling-interpreting-careers-for-blind-and-low-vision-communities

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