It’s a rite of passage for most youth: the summer job. Many adults have memories of stocking shelves at a mall or working at a fast-food restaurant – and for teens with visual impairments, the opportunity to work is just as important.
“If they graduate from high school and don’t have any work experiences they can talk about, few employers will want to be the first one,” said Karen McCormack, job developer at Perkins School for the Blind.
To gain that critical vocational experience, five students from across New England took on jobs as part of the five-week World of Work vocational program offered by Perkins Short Courses. They lived at Perkins and traveled each day to their worksites.
That journey was particularly memorable for 19-year-old Perkins student Jon and 18-year-old public school student Jamire, who took a ferry each day out to Spectacle Island, a popular hiking and swimming spot in Boston Harbor.
“I wanted something different, where I was going to be outdoors all the time,” said Jon, whose previous experience includes watering plants at a grocery store and answering phones at an insurance company.
Since Jon is blind with only light perception, he set up a sign and a bell at his desk outside the visitor center so tourists would know how to get his attention. He offered information about ferry arrivals and departures, checking his braille copy of the ferry schedule as necessary. He also gave out pamphlets for self-guided tours and answered any other questions that came his way.
Jamire took a more physical role with the Spectacle Island maintenance crew, since his glaucoma only limits his ability to see details. He watered plants, cleaned bathrooms and even picked up after the three coyotes that live on the 105-acre island.
Back on the mainland in Boston’s Faulkner Hospital, 17-year-old Anderson and 21-year-old Ana took turns stocking utensils, which were labeled in braille, and wiping down tables in the cafeteria. Ana also worked on a database project, and they both packed up snacks like peanut butter and saltines to be sent to patients’ rooms.
“We love having them here,” said hospital volunteer coordinator Luz Vargas, who has a brother with visual impairments. “The staff tells me Anderson’s always smiling, and that brings a smile to their faces too.”
Across town in Boston’s Back Bay, 17-year-old Anthony learned the nuts and bolts of finance at Brookline Bank. His duties ranged from scanning checks and answering calls to sitting in on meetings with the chief credit officer to see the process of how major loans are granted.
“I feel like this really solidified my interest in finance and banking,” said Anthony, whose ocular albinism makes him sensitive to bright lights but doesn’t limit his ability to read papers or screens.
For teens with visual impairments, the World of Work program is about more than just building a better resume, said McCormack.
“Maybe they were a little uncomfortable in the beginning and by the end they feel good about themselves: ‘Look what I can do!’” she said. “A successful summer is one in which they gain independence and feel competent.”