It’s the cane that gives away Kate Williams’ blindness. If she didn’t have it, you’d never know. She’s petite and elegant, with flawless makeup and bright, attentive eyes.
“Making eye contact is so stressed by those who train people to do interviews,” says Williams. “We believe that is important. It may be a different technique that’s used by a blind person. Perhaps it’s looking at the voice. … Everyone knows that where the voice is, so probably a few inches on top of that, there’s gonna be a pair of eyes.”
Williams has had time to perfect her own eye contact skills: She started losing her sight in her 40s and was blind by age 65. But she wasn’t ready to give up her career, and she didn’t see why she should have to.
She moved to San Francisco from Southern California in 1997, when she could still see a little but couldn’t drive. She got a job in recruiting, which she kept for six years with the help of adaptive technology -- things like magnified screens and computer programs that speak. Eventually, the company whose products she used asked her to design an employment training program for the blind.
“Most employers are not aware of the capabilities of a person who’s blind or visually impaired,” she says. “They would be like me. I didn’t think blind people could accomplish too much, maybe anything -- that was my impression before I started losing my vision. I still pictured people on the corner selling pencils. Honestly, I hate to say that, but it’s the truth.”
Designing the program, she says, was an amazing opportunity to correct those misconceptions. “I really wanted to get that message out,” she says. “There’s a job for you.”
Since starting the Employment Immersion program for San Francisco's LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in 2011, Williams has placed dozens of people in jobs they actually want and are qualified for, from the Department of Labor to the San Francisco Mayor’s Office. One of her former clients works for Boeing, designing airplane parts -- he uses a Braille display. This work has gotten her noticed. She recently was awarded a Purpose Prize from encore.org, a local group that that recognizes innovative social impact work by older people.
Moving Forward, Despite Extra Challenges
Today, Williams is meeting with 29-year-old Greg Trela, who’s trying to find a job in civil engineering. They’ve been working together for a while on his resume, cover letter and interview skills, and Trela says he’s already learned a lot about connecting with potential employers.
“I didn’t realize when I first started out you’re supposed to send thank-you notes,” he says, laughing. “Nobody tells you these things. The question, ‘Tell me about yourself’ isn’t, ‘I’m a Pisces.’ It’s, ‘Here’s my education and my 30-second elevator speech.’ ”
Once they sit down in her office at the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Williams shows him a magazine that lists all the Bay Area companies in different industries. It’s full of useful information – the challenge will be extracting it.
Trela’s vision is 20/200, which means he can see a little, if it’s high contrast and highly magnified. The lists in front of him, though, are in teeny, tiny print. He and Williams have to magnify them on a monitor, and move the page around until they find the right spot. It’s slow going, and takes a painstaking 15 minutes to look up just a few companies. But neither displays any frustration.
“When you’re faced with something like blindness, it’s just something you have to become comfortable with,” says Williams. Even she can’t stay upbeat all the time.
But for Williams, bouncing back is critical for a job, and for life.