By Ying Chan
At first glance, Room 655 in Baruch College’s Newman Library looks like just one more computer lab, with wide-screen monitors in four rows, bare, white walls and a carpeted floor. But for Ellen Tarr and Carolina Vollo, Room 655 is a special place.
Tarr and Vollo are legally blind.
In the lab, Tarr and Vollo are thoughtful and soft-spoken, careful that their voices do not carry far, as two students lean in closely toward the magnified monitors to write e-mails, review lessons and practice using Word and PowerPoint.
Tarr, who began teaching Excel classes in March, also tutors at the learning lab, which is operated by the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People, a part of the Division of Continuing and Professional Studies at Baruch. The program is not intended for Baruch students, who receive similar services elsewhere in the college. Rather it is for the community, a way to teach skills that enhance the employment prospects of the visually impaired in the New York metropolitan area.
Last year, 186 students ages 15 to 81 attended the center’s courses, according to the center’s enrollment statistics. The majority of the center’s students are residents of New York City, with some from Long Island and New Jersey.
“Part of Baruch’s mission is servicing the community at large,” says William Reed, the assistant director of the center. “There was a real need for it and a growing need in our society.”
Like many, Tarr, who teaches at the lab, and Vollo, who takes classes there, learned of the center through the Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, a division of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services that provides funding and assistive technology to the legally blind.
“We teach blind and visually impaired people to use assistive technologies, such as JAWS, the screen-reading software, and Zoomtext, which is screen magnification, and we use those in training for Microsoft Office applications,” says Tarr, whose straight, jet-black hair delicately drapes her shoulders.
Tarr, who is employed part-time, is among the minority of the visually impaired and blind who are employed. An estimated 2.3 percent of non-institutionalized Americans reported a visual disability in 2008, according to DisabilityStatistics.org, a Web site that compiles data from several sources, and about 43 percent of them are employed.
Tarr, 31, has been legally blind since birth. Her friends, her family and the people around her, as well as her surroundings, are just faint, blurry outlines.
Under the Social Security Act, blindness is defined as “central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the use of correcting lens.” The term vision loss refers to those who are visually impaired and have “trouble seeing, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses” and have vision better than 20/200 and a visual field of more than 20 degrees, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities. Before this law, many visually impaired and blind people, including Karen Gourgey, the director of the center, struggled in their search for employment.
Gourgey applied for a teaching job in California before becoming director of the center in 1983 and recalls her interview there: “On every question, every category, where they had to evaluate me, I was excellent and outstanding, and on the bottom, the guy wrote: ‘Unacceptable because of handicap,’” says Gourgey. “Now, they just might say: ‘Someone has slightly better experience.’”
Pensively, she adds, “They can do it very easily and make it very hard to prove— people still don’t want to deal with what they think is an enormous challenge and difficulty for them.”
Increasing employers’ awareness is the key to improving the employment prospects of the visually disabled. “The essential idea is that once you digitize information, then you can either enlarge the print or you can have it spoken, or if people need, you can have braille output,” says Gourgey. “As a basic, that makes many, many more jobs accessible than otherwise would have been the case.”
The intention behind the handbook published by the center, A Practical Guide to Accommodating People With Visual Impairments in the Workplace, is to make employers less fearful and prejudiced. It delves into assistive technology, as well as the ways in which employers can better relate to those with vision loss.
“There’s a need for employers to simply to get to know people—people who have vision loss, people who are totally blind or who are visually impaired— to find out that people are people,” Gourgey says.
Vollo, who lost her vision gradually over a span of nearly eight years and can see only light and dark, agrees. “If the employer would be willing to have a more open mind,” Vollo says, she is convinced that testing the visually impaired people on their performance using Excel and Microsoft Word applications is fair.
While the plight of the visually impaired and blind sometimes seems insurmountable, the center maintains a positive outlook.
In the classes themselves, the teachers, who are also visually impaired, are “there as models for the people who are coming in, particularly people who have been devastated by the loss of their sight, either totally or gradually,” says Reed. “ It’s very hard for some of them to understand it, to adjust to it, and to recognize that they have life ahead of them.”
Reed, a former training manager at JP Morgan Chase, has also worked on programs educating people about working with and employing people with disabilities.
In April, the center will host its fourth annual conference, “Success Breeds Success,” at Baruch.
“There’s been progress, which is part of the reason why we’re naming this ‘Success Breeds Success,’ because there have been some accomplishments and we need to empower people to go out there and make more accomplishments happen,” says Gourgey. “The people who are involved, you know the minorities and the groups that are involved, also have to be hugely involved in making our own rights realities for us.”
The conference, whose keynote speaker is Lainey Feingold, a disability rights lawyer, will include workshops such as “Employment Success Stories,” which features a “panel comprised of blind or visually impaired employees and their placement specialists speaking about the process by which they developed an effective working partnership,” according to the conference schedule.
Half of the visually impaired and blind planning to attend, like Tarr, are returning attendees, according to Reed.
“It’s relatively new for me, this loss of my vision,” says Vollo, who is planning to attend this year’s conference for her first time. “I’m trying to get as much involved as possible with what’s going on and as a visually impaired, what’s out there for us for further education as well as jobs.”