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November 2011

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Seminar highlights accommodations for the visually impaired

By Eddy Ball
November 2011

Ian Thomas

Employers have a right and a need to ask questions about how a person with a disability can do a job, Thomas said, and applicants have a responsibility to be prepared with the answers. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Sharon Giovinazzo

Giovinazzo also praised integrated smartphone apps, such as her bar code reader and color identifier that help her at work, at home, and at play. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Peterson and Bullock-Allen watch the presentation

John Peterson, one of Thomas' colleagues in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison, left, and Bullock-Allen appear to ponder the speakers' suggestions for making the fitness facility more accessible. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

For Ian Thomas and Sharon Giovinazzo being legally blind never meant being less than fully productive - or sacrificing their sense of humor about coping with the sighted world.

Thomas, an NIEHS public affairs specialist, and Giovinazzo, an executive with the Raleigh Lions Clinic for the Blind (RLCB)( Exit NIEHS, treated Institute employees to an informal discussion about how technology has helped open doors for them in the workplace, during a seminar they called “Donuts and Disabilities” Oct. 11 at NIEHS. With its unexpected blend of levity and gravitas, the seminar's title helped set the tone for an entertaining and edifying look at how the world of work looks to people who lack the sight necessary for a driver's license or the ability to match the color of their socks without the help of a smartphone app.

The seminar was sponsored by the NIEHS Disability Advocacy Committee (DAC) in recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month( Exit NIEHS, which was proclaimed by President Barack Obama Oct. 3.

Reading and writing with the help of technology

Thomas, an eight-year veteran of the radio industry, joined NIEHS in June, after having worked with several organizations, including Clear Channel Radio, EA Sports, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the U.S. Army. He has been legally blind since childhood, as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease that damages the light-sensitive rods and cones located in the back part of the eyes.

With the help of assistive technology that magnifies text and images, Thomas relies on peripheral vision as he performs essential parts of his job, such as reading, negotiating the internet, and writing. He talked enthusiastically about 21st century technology, which enables him to satisfy the requirements of his job, even as he goes about completing his work a little differently than do his sighted co-workers.

For Thomas, being able to communicate how he can do the job despite his visual impairment was what has made him successful in job interviews. “It's a 50-50 process, a two-way street,” he said. “When a prospective employer asks how you can do something [even without complete vision], having the answers is critical.”

Advocating for the visually impaired

A former Army medic who lost her sight as a consequence of inflammation of the optic nerve due to multiple sclerosis, Giovinazzo is vice president of development and community relations with RLCB. An ISO 9001-certified strategic partner, RLCB provides employment for the visually impaired in the areas of textile operations, manufacturing assembly/pick-pack, and contact center needs. Speaking of her personal and professional goals, Giovinazzo said, “I'm working to eliminate blindness as a disability.”

Like Thomas, Giovinazzo emphasized the importance of letting people know about the abilities of people with sight impairment and how they can be productive through reasonable accommodation. “It's all about communication,” she said.

Giovinazzo, who earned two masters degrees after losing her sight, relies heavily on her communication skills to do a job that requires extensive travel and networking with RLCB customers. She is constantly negotiating unfamiliar environments and promoting the quality of work performed by employees with visual impairments.

Beyond the workplace: coping with disability at play

During the question and answer portion of the seminar, NIEHS Health and Fitness Program Manager Stephanie Bullock-Allen asked the speakers, “How can I make our fitness room more accessible?”

“Keep things in order,” Thomas answered. “Simple organization makes a world of difference.” He described his own confusion in weight training, trying to sort out misplaced plates. He also suggested placing dots on the flat panels of machines to help users find the right controls.

Giovinazzo pointed to new technology that allows recordings to be embedded into stickers, such as the ones in the RLCB manufacturing facility that can be played with a special pen, and recommended familiarizing fitness trainers with the importance of verbalizing instructions.

Group photo of Ian Thomas, Sharon Giovinazzo, Tina Jones and Dick Sloane
Shown, left to right, Thomas and Giovinazzo join their hosts, DAC co-chairs Tina Jones and Dick Sloane, following the seminar. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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