What is Envision Works
Formerly an affiliate of the Project Search program, and funded by the Mass Commission for the Blind (MCB) in 2014, this program follows the original model from the Cincinnati based program, by providing career exploration and development, job hunt and research assistance and weekly seminars for legally blind job seekers in the Boston area. In 2017 the Polus center drafted proposals to secure funding from foundations to maintain a version of the program, now called Envision Work. For 6 months candidates develop their skills for potential jobs, learn better networking tactics and receive assistance in the ever changing job search landscape through collaboration with the Career Source center in Cambridge, all while gaining work experience through the host establishment Mass. Eye and Ear in Boston.
For the program to be considered a success, candidates must achieve a +30hr/week job placement. To hit that mark requires exceptional individuals practiced in helping one capitalize on their past experiences and combine that with new skills and an expanded network. Having spent most of her adult life in the business world, Jen Whitmore knows what this type of success looks like. While running a startup company, she directed the production of 2 clothing lines from conceptualization, to overseas manufacturing to domestic distribution, and has provided jobs for many people. Unfortunately she has also seen first hand how people are effected when there aren’t jobs to go around. When the company she worked for filed for bankruptcy in 2007 she was placed in the unenviable position of having to place 169 employees on the street. Since then she has been an active force for the local homeless population of Boston, providing a constant source of support and understanding for a marginalized community. Needless to say when Theresa Kane met with Jen to bring her onboard to this program, it did not take much convincing.
“What does it take to get someone who is often barred from traditional entry to work for any number of disabilities including vision impairment through the door to the point where they are fully employed and to the point where they want to be? That was the goal and we’ve never taken our eye off the ball. People who want to work, we want to get them to that point and we’ll stop at nothing.”
For these job seekers success is rarely as simple as overcoming the limitations of their disabilities. Often the vision problems are coupled with other issues; trauma, injury, single parenting etc. It is easy to fall into patterns. Candidates can be resistant to change, but many have made significant strides since going through the program.
“The biggest challenge is resistance to trying for fear of failure. Lots of candidates come from a place of deep isolation. They’ve stopped reaching out and applying for jobs because it hurts. What we do hear is work on a human level, building up people’s confidence and modeling really good work ethic and behavior. I’m a cheerleader. I don’t necessarily carry pompoms, although I like to. I’m also a puzzle solver. We all come to this experience with the stories that we have told ourselves over the years for why we are where we are. What I like to do is ask, what are the other options? There’s a reason why people have become chronically unemployed or underemployed and it’s not necessarily solely because of a vision impairment. What are the pieces that are weighing someone down? We like to lighten the load, so they can do more and ask more of themselves.”
The transition from unemployed to employed is as much an internal shift as external. Feeling better about trying, feeling like you have something to offer and using those feelings to reframe your thoughts, enables you to widen your sphere of influence and draw working relationships into that sphere. You become politely persistent, rather than a pester or waste of time. You show people what you can do for them, rather than what it would take from them.
“Probably the reason we’ve been so successful in this building is our ability to walk into a department, ask nothing of them, but add to their day, creating personal relationships based on professional experience. Most people want to help, but it’s too overwhelming to them. If we’re very specific with what we need and when we need it, we get a better result.”
The experience is different for everyone but for many job seekers, disability or no, it can be a rough ride with many ups and downs. What can get lost is the human element. It can be so easy to spiral during those down moments. Jen brings the professional experience, and the business savvy, but most importantly she brings that human element. She doesn’t let you stay in that spiral and isolate. There are always opportunities to succeed. People Like Jen push you to take them.
Over 12 years ago the thought of navigating life with a disability had not cross Will MacNamara’s mind. That was until the day he woke up in a hospital bed after breaking his back in a mountain biking accident, and suddenly navigating in the strictest physical sense was going to be an uphill battle. Having required surgery to correct a bruised spinal cord, it was 6 moths before Will could walk short distances unassisted, but he did regain full mobility. Unfortunately, the accident did leave a lasting impact in the form of strokes to his optic nerves, leaving only his peripheral vision intact. What Will brings to the team is something that should be present in any type of advocacy program, that being someone with the confidence and people skills to liaison between the candidates and potential employers, but who also has personally lived what the candidates are going through.
“I had never imagined not being able to see, being legally blind and the enormous amount of anxiety, frustration and road blocks that come along with that. And I hit all of them, real hard. Through hitting those road blocks and getting up, I bring a huge amount of experience and life knowledge, especially working with Jen. Sometimes I’ll say, you know that would frustrate me, and she’ll be like oh, ok I get it.”
Will was already familiar with Mass. Eye and Ear, having regularly brought his therapy dog Riva to visit the patients. He remarks that Mass. Eye and Ear was an easy choice to host the program. As a hospital on the cutting edge of several fields of research and treatment for vision loss, it stands to reason that it should also be ground zero for showing just how effective visually impaired employees can be in the work force.
The rise in technology has made it possible for blind and visually impaired employees to complete nearly any task, but half the battle is effectively communicating that fact to employers that through no fault of their own, just don’t have the information.
“We don’t not see. We speak a different language. We see things differently. There’s no map, there’s no guide, there’s a lot of information, most of it not accurate.”
In a world that spins very fast, it’s easy to inadvertently leave someone behind, without considering the circumstances of their situation and how they might be an asset. Perhaps a gap in a resume is related to recovery or aiding a family member in need.
People who join commonly say something to the effect of wanting to change something in their life. It’s hard to change someone’s perspective.
Since the program started, the collaboration between departments has been positive. Systems have become more accessible and when something is having issues, there is the commitment to sort it out.