By Mark T. Vivien, Board Member, Blind Institute of Technology
Originally published on Mark’s LinkedIn Articles.
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In Part 1, posted December 15, 2017, I highlighted five key takeaways regarding diversity and inclusion efforts, and unemployment within the blind and visually impaired community:
- Companies with a formal diversity and inclusiveness strategy said it has improved their bottom line.
- Diversity and inclusion is key to filling the talent gap companies continually face.
- The primary driver of the 70% unemployment rate in the blind and visually impaired (BVI) community is a lack of awareness, opportunity, and prioritization (vs. the common assumption that it is due to the lack of education and skills as well as inadequate technology).
- The blind and visually impaired offer three unique abilities that separate them from sighted employees – listening skills, adaptability/problem solving, and loyalty.
- The Blind Institute of Technology (BIT) is the only organization proactively working to reduce the high unemployment rate in the BVI community.
On January 3, 2018, you met Theresa Montano, the first of five amazing individuals that reinforce BIT’s and my belief – companies miss out on some of the best and brightest talent when they overlook the blind and visually impaired.
Today, I am excited to introduce you to the amazing Jeffrey Ritz.
I believe it is important to start with context around the value Jeffrey adds, specifically to companies in need of talent today and in the future. I propose to you that Jeffrey’s skills and abilities make him more than capable of filling at least four high demand roles:
- Collaborate with a team of IT professionals to set specifications for new applications
- Design creative prototypes according to specifications
- Write high quality source code to program complete applications within deadlines
- Perform unit and integration testing before launch
- Conduct functional and non-functional testing
- Troubleshoot and debug applications
- Evaluate existing applications to reprogram, update and add new features
- Develop technical documents and handbooks to accurately represent application design and code
- Use markup languages like HTML5 and CSS3 to create user-friendly web pages
- Implement visual and interactive elements that users engage with through their web browser when using a web application
- Maintain and improve websites
- Optimize applications for maximum speed
- Collaborate with back-end developers and web designers to improve usability
- Write functional requirement documents and guides
- Create quality mockups and prototypes
- Help back-end developers with coding and troubleshooting
- Ensure high quality graphic standards and brand consistency
- Mobile developers specialize in mobile technology such as building apps for Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone platforms
- Develop application programming interfaces (APIs) to support mobile functionality
- Use and adapt existing web applications for apps
- Use languages such as Java and C++
- Support the entire application lifecycle (concept, design, test, release and support)
- Produce fully functional mobile applications writing clean code
- Gather specific requirements and suggest solutions
- Write unit and UI tests to identify malfunctions
- Troubleshoot and debug to optimize performance
- Design interfaces to improve user experience
- Ensure new and legacy applications meet quality standards
- Work closely with colleagues to constantly innovate app functionality and design
- Responsibilities include designing and developing high-volume, low-latency applications for mission-critical systems and delivering high-availability and performance
- Contribute in all phases of the development lifecycle, create design documents, and perform program coding and testing
- Write well designed, testable, efficient code
- Ensure designs are in compliance with specifications
- Prepare and produce releases of software components
- Support continuous improvement by investigating alternatives and technologies and presenting these for architectural review
- Resolve technical issues through debugging, research, and investigation
Here is Jeffrey
We start our journey of getting to know Jeffrey with a short two-minute video he made in support of the Blind Institute of Technology (BIT):
What an amazing journey – from a Master’s degree in Theology and missionary work in Chile to an IT Accessibility role with Charter Communications (“Charter”).
I wish the video captured the full extent of his excitement around his work at Charter, its impact, and just overall pride in using the knowledge and skill built over the last 20 years.
My wife met Jeffrey two weeks ago at BIT’s Dining in the Dark Gala. He was so excited to talk about his work and show her a new application he built for personal reasons. As I watched him walk her through the new application, how he built it etc., I was reminded of the power of employing people in roles that match their passion, skills, and abilities. When we walked away, she turned to me with a huge smile, and simply said – “Amazing.”
Jeffrey Up Close
The Formative Years
Jeffrey was legally blind at birth; however, he is not completely blind. The culprit – Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (ONH). ONH is a condition present at birth and characterized by underdeveloped optic nerves. Optic nerves transmit impulses from the nerve-rich membranes lining the retina of the eye to the brain.
Jeffrey’s father never tried to put him in a “box” because of his visual impairment. Thus, Jeffrey attended public school until the last few years of high school when he attended the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. He wore a very strong pair of glasses for reading and binoculars for distance.
In high school, he took a drafting class. The principal told him that he would never be able to succeed at drafting. Jeffrey passed the course with high marks.
Homework and studying always took longer. It was common for Jeffery to be studying at 1:00am. As much as possible, he would use large print textbooks. Unfortunately, these large print textbooks had to be special ordered and were only sporadically available.
After high school, Jeffrey attended Community College where he earned an Associate of Arts degree in three semesters instead of the normal four.
After, he started at Florida State University; however, his time there was short due to an extreme case of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Rather than feeling sorry for himself, Jeffrey decided to attend Theology school at Faith Christian University. Here he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Missions and a Master’s degree in Theology. He also attended Mission training in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma with the goal of working at the Mission training school.
The Transformative Years
So ask yourself this question – “if you are visually impaired and only speak English, would you move to a foreign country.” Well, that is exactly what Jeffrey did. For two and one-half years, he lived in Santiago, Chile. There he taught himself Spanish, learned the light rail system, and worked as a Desktop Publisher. Interestingly, Jeffrey told me that the metro transportation system in Santiago was easier to use than the one, for example, in Orlando, Florida.
The people in Santiago welcomed Jeffrey with open-arms. His visual impairment was never an issue, and in fact, many found him inspirational. People asked him regularly to speak at churches, schools, etc.
After returning to the United States, Jeffrey earned an Associate degree in Web Graphic Design from DeVry. As long as he has a screen magnifier, web graphic design was no problem – most of the work is writing code.
While earning his Associate degree, he started working at a call center. His call center experience became extremely important to maintaining employment. Call center work was the only work he could land until, 17 years after receiving his Associate’s, he connected with BIT.
One example of the challenges Jeffrey faced was an interview he had for a web design position. The first interview, on the phone, went well. Unfortunately, the second interview was in-person. When the hiring manager saw that Jeffrey was visually impaired, Jeffrey received the “thanks, but no thanks” response that is all too common for members of the blind and visually impaired community. Jeffrey offered to show him how he could do the work, but the hiring manager had already decided that there was no way for a visually impaired person to do the job effectively.
Eventually, Jeffrey’s call center experience brought him to Colorado, working for United Healthcare. After two years, the office closed. It was then that his professional life truly transformed. Thanks to the BIT Academy, Jeffrey learned Salesforce Administration and passed certification testing. With an increased confidence, he also started to learn how to make applications, programs, etc. fully accessible. The end-result is that Jeffrey is now a full-time employee of Charter Communications as an Accessibility UX Designer.
Jeffrey’s Accessibility Work
Jeffrey is responsible for making sure all web and mobile applications are accessible. His work has included cleaning up a legacy, voice management application and writing accessibility requirements for new applications.
For one project, Jeffrey built a completely accessible prototype of an application that adjusted to the size and shape of device one uses. His work included
- HTML coding
- Accessible Rich Internet Application (ARIA) coding that supplements HTML code so screen readers can recognize elements on a page
- Use of Bootstrap and UI Kit for the framework
Jeffrey’s key activities include many of those required for success as an Application Developer, Front-end Engineer, Mobile Developer, or Java Developer.
- Design and create prototypes
- Write well designed, testable, efficient, high quality code
- Support the entire application lifecycle
- Evaluate existing applications
- Collaborate with back-end developers and web designers
- Write functional requirement documents and guides
- Ensure designs are in compliance with specifications
So, when we match Jeffrey’s education, experience, and skills against the qualities required for success in the four high demand positions I highlighted earlier, the result is conclusive – Jeffrey “checks” the most important requirements boxes.
Companies definitely miss out on some of the best and brightest talent when they overlook the blind and visually impaired.
Led by founder Mike Hess, the Blind Institute of Technology is a team of staff, volunteers and board members passionate about addressing an attitude shift for blind professionals and educating companies on how to hire and cultivate success for the visually impaired
BIT’s mission is simple, but powerful: Prepare the blind and visually impaired, and the employers who hire them, for success in the workplace. Said another way, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
BIT fundamentally believes that companies are missing-out on some of the best and brightest talent available in the country today. It means that talented individuals are left to live off public welfare programs, rather than being afforded the opportunity to put their skills to work and earn a living wage.
BIT believes that addressing these problems is a moral and economic imperative.
BIT is the only organization proactively working to reduce the high unemployment rate in the BVI community.
Since earning a B.S. degree from John Carroll University and a MBA from Texas A&M University, Mark has excelled in a variety of roles and industries: financial, business, and strategic planning & analytics, business development, mergers and acquisitions, sales, oil and gas, consumer products, technology, and non-profit. Today, he is an Account Executive for Softchoice Corporation, a leading technology company in North America.
Over the years, Mark has provided volunteer support in areas such as conservation, homelessness, and supporting veterans. Today, he spends most of his volunteer time supporting diversity and inclusion efforts.
Mark currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Blind Institute of Technology (BIT). BIT prepares the blind and visually impaired, and the employers who hire them, for success in the workplace. There is actually a 70% unemployment rate in the adult Blind and Visually Impaired community in the United States. When you add underemployment (working in positions requiring a lower level of skills and abilities and for less pay than equally skilled sited individuals), the rate goes over 80%. Paraphrasing Mark, the problem is not a skills nor technology issue. It is an awareness issue.
This month Mark begins an eighteen month term on his company’s lead Diversity and Inclusion Committee, ONEsoftchoice.
Mark also enjoys camping, hiking, fly fishing, riding his Polaris RZR side-by-side, hunting (especially with his dog Riley), obstacle racing, music, and spending time with friends and family.