Stacking up: Workshop teaches strategies to young job seekers

Two students pack oranges in a box under supervision

Students Adam (left) and Carolyn practice stacking produce with encouragement from Patrick McLaughlin, associate team leader in Whole Foods’ produce department.

Adam's hands ran over the rough contours of the oranges. He was at Whole Foods in Cambridge, Mass., and his task was to pull 30 citrus fruits from a box and stack them in a pyramid.

The 19-year-old who is blind began with the base. It needed to be solid before he could build upward. As he moved on to the second level, he noticed his foundation was not as stable as he had hoped.

"If you push too much, the oranges can fall to the ground," he observed. Perhaps that was the point of the training exercise coordinated by two Whole Foods staffers: team members need to build upon established skills before they can graduate to higher levels of work and responsibility at the popular organic supermarket chain.

Whole Foods was just one learning opportunity in an intensive five-week Career Awareness Workshop held this past summer at Perkins, where Adam and four other Secondary students who are visually impaired laid the foundation for their future in the world of work.

Upon returning from a different job site each week, the students discussed what they learned. They brainstormed about how they could positively contribute to each job. Then they mapped out a step-by-step process to get hired.

The Career Awareness Workshop taught students the skills and strategies they'll need to find and keep a job, or achieve other life goals, Transition Coordinator Denise Fitzgerald said. It's part of Perkins' Total Life Learning Curriculum, which aims to fill developmental gaps in kids living with sensory impairments.

"It is about the processes of preparing for everything from college to job interviews," she said.

Most people who are blind or visually impaired will have to compete for jobs with the non-disabled population, Job Developer Karen McCormack said. So the workshop began with an introduction to job skills 101.

Even employers who are committed to accommodating people who are blind will expect professionalism, McCormack told students. "A supportive work environment does not mean anything goes. You have to have a certain level of skill. You have to interact with your coworkers a certain way. You have to show up and be ready."

Some of the lessons she shared were very basic. That was intentional, McCormack explained. "The students have gaps in learning. They don't pick up on the same things sighted people do."

For example, certain social graces casually observed by sighted people can evade a student who is blind or visually impaired, she noted, so those social skills must be explicitly taught and practiced.

To put some of the new concepts into practice, students visited job sites like the CVS Learning Center in Boston. It's a full-scale replica of the store used for training new employees, and students learned some specific tasks performed by workers in the ubiquitous drug store chain.

The students practiced customer service skills, like how to properly greet a customer at the cash register. A scavenger hunt helped familiarize them with products and where they're located in the store.

CVS has a longstanding relationship with Perkins and works hard to include people with disabilities in its job force, CVS Learning Center Coordinator Roneline Singh said. "We are an equal-opportunity employer. Everybody needs to work and make a living."

When picking job sites for the students to visit, the workshop focused heavily on retail and service establishments, McCormack said, because that's where most people find their first job. She stressed to students that their first jobs would not be glamorous; in fact, they might be quite boring or basic.

During visits to Whole Foods and the Disability Law Center in Boston, students learned about laws and policies that impact an employer's ability to request information about disabilities.

"We establish the essential functions of the job," Whole Foods Benefits Specialist Christina Oertel said. "If you can do these things, that's enough. You don't have to tell Whole Foods any additional information."

At the Disability Law Center, Jonathan Gale stressed that people with a disability are people first; their disability is secondary.

"When you have a disability, you want people to think of you as a person, not your disability," he said. "The second day you're on the job, you don't want your blindness to be an issue."

Gale, who is blind and the coordinator for the Cross-Disabilities Advocacy Coalition, said humor is often an effective tool to alleviate workplace tension.

Without a little levity, co-workers may be "frightened of what they might say that will offend you," he said. "You have to initially break down those barriers."

Back at Whole Foods, Adam and the other students finished the orange-stacking exercise and explored different departments in the store. By the end of the visit, the teenagers had learned some hard truths about the world of work.

For example, when it's busy in the workplace, "No talking about your favorite topics," Adam said.

Seventeen-year-old Omar agreed. "When there are a lot of people waiting in line at the checkout, we can't talk to each other," he said. "If you do, you're out."