Perkins Job Developer Karen McCormack confronts a sobering statistic every day – the 75 percent unemployment rate for people with visual impairments. To help students develop the skills and confidence they'll need to find a job after graduation, McCormack encourages their exploration of career options, and works with local companies to develop new vocational training opportunities, internships and part-time jobs.
Perspectives sat down with McCormack to discuss why workplace experience is an increasingly essential part of a Perkins education.
What's the biggest benefit of having a job as a student?
The sense of pride they get from identifying themselves in a new way, and learning from non-traditional educators. They have an experience that's all their own, after school, in a work setting. It builds their self-esteem. They also learn the importance of problem solving, of building networks and spontaneous opportunities to communicate. Out on a job site, you never know who you're meeting – that's a critical component of learning.
What challenges do our students face when looking for work?
There are employers who are interested in the idea of employing someone with disabilities, but can't imagine hiring someone who is blind. Every employer is different in what they're willing and able to do. My job is to go in to these workplaces, observe how they operate and educate employers about the benefits of hiring someone who is blind. But we need more: more places where students can work, more opportunities to develop students' job skills.
Are there jobs that Perkins students are particularly eager about?
Our students are interested in all kinds of jobs. Entry-level work experiences help these teens develop work habits and refine skills. That's why working at the local supermarket or movie theater is so important. Unfortunately, career options don't occur as naturally to kids with blindness, because most of them never had the chance to observe the world visually – and all the jobs that make the world go round – while growing up. Sometimes a few adaptations to the workplace are needed, and then our kids can perform just as well as other employees. That's why career exploration – for both students and potential employers – is such a critical component of education.
How do you keep job expectations realistic?
I temper their enthusiasm with the reality of what their skills and interests are and what they can offer a company, not just what they want. For example, I'm trying to set up time with an HR person at a radio station to see if there's some other way to satisfy our students' interest of working in that field without jumping right to the DJ role. What are the other avenues of entry? How many people do this for a living? (I ask students), are you going to limit yourself because you have that one interest area, or are you going to take a broader view?
What are some examples of student jobs and learning experiences?
I have a student who works in a small boutique that sells Fair Trade goods – it's a great learning environment because it's slower paced, with lots of support. I work with another student who has a great affinity for dogs. She went on a site visit to a doggy daycare because she thought it would be a perfect fit. But she found that the business is primarily about behavior management for dogs – it was an eye opener. Now she's at Petco, a retail setting devoted to animal care, which better syncs with her interests. At the same time, she's developing skills that will translate to future work opportunities.