Technology offers job niche for the disabled
By Chris Flores
/ The News & Advance

People with disabilities may have fewer options when job hunting, but one option for some is one of the best fields that is open to anyone - information technology.
Alex Herron is the technology coordinator for project TRAIN IT, which will help 40 disabled people get training and employment in an information technology (IT) job.

"The whole key is to prove to an employer, because many of the (TRAIN IT) people don't have information technology experience, that they are prepared to take on an entry-level job," said Herron, who works at Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitative Center in Augusta County.

Over the next month Central Virginians can apply to Project TRAIN IT.

"We want to remove any productivity barriers people have," said Herron.

The TRAIN IT program began at the state-owned Fishersville center in July 2001 as part of a $600,000 Department of Labor grant that was one of six awarded nationwide to give technology training to disabled people.

The project, which began in several counties in the Shenandoah Valley in October 2001, was the only one of the six to get more funding this year. It's expanding the program from 29 counties to 41 counties, including Amherst, Bedford and Campbell counties and the city of Lynchburg.

TRAIN IT Project Director Marilyn Stroud is accepting applications through December with those chosen starting training in March.

Training will continue until October, including an internship from June into September.

The Virginia Employment Commission identified 1,200 people with disabilities in the 41 counties, and sent letters to them about the program. The Department of Rehabilitative Services also refers people to the program.

Application is through the Region 2000 Workforce Investment Board's job center. People can apply at the board's center until Dec. 20.

As the first year closes, TRAIN IT has placed about 20 people in jobs and internships. Some are still taking classes, two dropped out and one went back to college.

So far, seven people have jobs, including: a Web developer at a bankruptcy court, someone doing hardware maintenance for an Internet Service Provider, and a desktop application technician at Wachovia.

The only qualifications for the program are at least a high school degree or GED, basic computer competency and interest in IT work. About half of last year's students were getting services from their local Department of Rehabilitative Services office.

"Last year, about 50 percent of our students had about two years of college," said Stroud.

TRAIN IT interviews applicants and analyzes their medical stability and motivation. The pool is trimmed to finalists who take computer skill assessment tests at their local workforce centers, and selections are made after the test.

The training courses are taken on the Internet through Skillsoft, which donated access to its 1,500 courses. Herron helps participants decide which courses they should take.

"I picked out the ones that are best-suited to work toward their certification, and whatever they're interested in," said Herron. "Most of the students are working toward some kind of certification or specialty area in information technology."

Participants can take classes at their convenience at any computer with an Internet connection. Many are taking Master Mouse, which makes them experts in Microsoft Word and Excel and give them core skills for Outlook, Access and PowerPoint.

"That's pointing them towards being a desktop application technician," said Herron, "not somebody that can go around and fix computers, but someone who can help people who are trying to get work done in an office."

Some participants are taking more complicated courses, like A++ certification, Network+ and Microsoft's certification courses. The participants may spend anywhere from 10 to 30 hours a week taking the Web courses.

The Woodrow Wilson Center formed a mobile team that will help TRAIN IT participants and the companies and organizations that employ them.

The mobile team helps people with their disabilities and provides them with assistive technologies to help them overcome disabilities. The technologies can be simple, like ergonomically designed keyboards and special mouses, or more complex.

One participant the first year was wheelchair-bound and had a limited ability to move his arms. He was outfitted with speech to text technology to make voice commands and a mouse that points a laser from his head at the screen and he can click with his hand.

"I wish I had one," said Herron of the unique mouse. "He's amazingly fast with that thing."

The program also provides mentors in the IT industry who can help participants learn about the industry and how to do their jobs. Herron said there wasn't enough for the first year, and he's trying to recruit more to help participants over a new Web site where mentors can give advice over a message board.

The program helps participants look for work, and maintains a database of job opportunities, including local employers interested in hiring program graduates.

Although only 40 people will get into the program, disabled people interested in IT careers can find out about more possibilities through their local DRS office.

"We would utilize any training facility in the community that might be appropriate for the person," said Margaret Gillispie, the regional director for 10 DRS centers in Western Virginia. "We require that people apply for federal financial aid."

DRS also may contribute to training costs if people meet criteria for financial need.

A byproduct of TRAIN IT has been that disabled people are getting acquainted with their local workforce centers across western Virginia.

"We're making that initial foot in the door contact with them," said Deborah Alfers, program coordinator for the Lynchburg center. "Once people make the connection we're here, and once we move into The Plaza, it will open the door for more walk-in business."

The Region 2000 Workforce Investment Board's job center will move to The Plaza later this month when it's new offices are finished. It is currently operating out of Central Virginia Community College.

Contact Chris Flores at cflores@newsadvance.com or (434) 385-5556.

This story can be found at: http://newsadvance.com/news/MGBD0M65G9D.html