Preparing Blind People for the Tech Workforce

A new center in Kansas is giving blind and visually impaired individuals an opportunity to train for jobs in the technology industry.

by Rafael Garcia, The Wichita Eagle / June 8, 2018
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(TNS) — When Sedrick Veal first lost his sight, he felt clueless — with no idea what he'd do next.

In 2012, Veal, now 37, went under the knife twice for open-heart surgery, and twice he fell brain dead. The experiences damaged the Lousiana native's eyesight, and he now only sees shadows.

Veal said although he never gave up hope, he was scared for the future until he applied to Envision, a locally headquartered national company that advocates for people who are blind or have low vision. So Veal made the trip to Wichita, Kan., and he found a home in the community and in Envision.

Now Veal says he's excited for the company's new workforce center that will train blind and low vision people to work in the technology industry.

"For people like myself who want to be in the next wave of job searching, this is going to be a great facility for us," Veal said. "It's going to be the next step for people who want to stay above reproach in their job search."

The center was officially unveiled Thursday morning in a ceremony that brought in executives from national advocacy groups for blind people, as well as local officials and politicians.

The William L. Hudson Blind and Visually Impaired Workforce Innovation Center will primarily train blind people to work in call centers and to test the usability and accessibility of software, technology and devices. The center is a result of a partnership between Envision, a company that advocates for people who are blind or have low vision, and LCI, the largest employer of blind or visually impaired people.

Heather Hogan, senior vice president of foundation and mission services for Envision, said the call center work is a natural transition for somebody who is blind, and governmental mandates on accessibility will lead to an increase in the demand for accessibility testing.

“We’re bringing intelligence to Wichita, and we’re bringing transformation,” Hogan said. “We’re providing the disability community the ability to be seen right here in Wichita. Nobody else is doing what we’re doing here in Wichita.”

The center represents the next step for Envision, said Bill Hudson, CEO of LCI and namesake of the center.

“The basis of that idea was that our world is changing at a very rapid rate,” Hudson said. “We sit here and we think about our success employing people who are blind in a lot of different areas. But the one thing that we weren’t doing was getting into the real world that is the world of technology.”

The center was training people even before Thursday’s unveiling. Envision has worked with Apple and Microsoft, as well as other big tech companies. Hogan said the center is working with Cox Communications to identify ways they can partner.

Located on the fifth floor of Envision’s headquarters at North Main Street and West Pine, the center consists of training spaces, classrooms, a kitchen area, a maker space and offices for the center’s administration.

The training space will allow trainees to conduct end-to-end testing of software and websites for companies. The maker space will function as an area for high tech development of applications and products for people who are blind or visually impaired.

“We want it to happen here,” Hogan said. “We’re going to give people an opportunity, and we’re going to have competitions for college students to come in and develop applications that support this industry. We’re really focusing on accessibility here.”

Kirk Adams, president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind, said that only between 30 and 35 percent of the working-aged blind population is working, and that about a third of the blind community lives in poverty or experiences food insecurity. Most of the blind population works for either the government or nonprofit organizations, so the training center will do much to increase the amount of blind people who work for private corporations or are self-employed, he said.

Veal cannot yet read Braille and is not yet a member of the training center, but he dreams of returning to school to complete a degree in social work so he can help other visually impaired people, and maybe even children. He thinks of his disability as a “stepping stone” to accomplish his dream, and he said he knows the value of a center like Envision’s.

“A lot of people use disabilities as a stumbling block, but I see it as a stepping stone — as something that I can use to elevate me to what I’m called to be. Envision has so many sources, and it will help me be placed at the job I want.”

Mayor Jeff Longwell, Sedgewick County Commission Chairman David Dennis and Governor Jeff Colyer attended the ceremony. Colyer spoke about the need for Kansas to attract and employ people with disabilities.

“The first pillar of independence is work, and in Kansas, we believe in people with disabilities,” Colyer said. “We believe in people with disabilities because they make all of our worlds better. Corporate America is changing, and we need all of us. We need all Kansans. Frankly, I’ll steal every blind person from across America to right here in Wichita, Kansas.”

Veal said the presence and support of Wichita and local officials underscores the importance of accessibility.

“A lot of communities don’t have that, but to know that we as blind people are being championed by people who can fight with us and for us, that’s going to be like wings under our feet,” he said.

©2018 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.