Careers take flight again

Disability: A state program helps two blind men who moved to Maryland from New York learn to live independently and resume their jobs as airline reservation agents.

February 01, 2003|By Luke Tracy | Luke Tracy,SUN STAFF

Relocating for a job is difficult for anyone. But moving to a new city can be a particularly intimidating prospect for the blind, who rely on familiarity with their surroundings to live day to day.

Marc Simitian and Carlos Gomez, two blind reservation agents with Northwest Airlines, faced just such a challenge when their employer closed the call center where they worked on Long Island, N.Y., and offered them the option of relocating to Hanover.

Both lived with their mothers, who provided for many of their basic needs. They could work and get around the areas where they lived, but neither knew how to cook, clean or do laundry.

"My family did everything for me all my life," said Simitian, who has been visually impaired his whole life and completely blind since he was 20. "All I had to do was wake up in the morning and go to work."

Today, Simitian, 39, and Gomez, 36, live independently in apartments in the Baltimore area and are working again as agents in a Northwest call center near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They credit a state program that provides intensive training in everything from gourmet cooking to navigating public transportation.

"It's a long process," said Gomez, "I've been told it takes years to learn everything. ... I'm really happy, though."

Simitian said the biggest difference for him has been his confidence.

"I've gotten a lot more comfortable being on my own," he said last week, adding that it had been three weeks since he had visited New York, the longest he has ever been away from his hometown.

The decision to move was not an easy one for Gomez and Simitian, who began working for Northwest in the early 1990s. They were laid off in the summer of 2001 with the option of returning to the company within five years.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they found it hard to find another travel industry job in New York.

So the two, who are friends, revisited the idea of moving to the Baltimore area and going back to Northwest. But they knew they would need a lot of help. They turned to the Workforce and Technology Center at Morgan State University in Baltimore, which is run by the Maryland Department of Education's Division of Rehabilitation Services.

The center offers training in workplace and academic skills, and in independent living, for people in Maryland with many kinds of disabilities.

The center's programs vary in length and focus, depending on the needs of the student. Gomez and Simitian spent five months in residence there.

Since completing their training -- Gomez in September and Simitian in December -- they have had occasional follow-up training with a home rehabilitation teacher and an orientation and mobility specialist. They haven't yet mastered every nuance of independent living, but the difference, they both say, is profound.

In a recent interview, the two exude the kind of friendliness that you'd expect from two career reservation agents. They have known each other for almost 16 years and are constantly joking with each other and those around them.

Simitian keeps his apartment in Glen Burnie impeccably neat. Carol Lewis, his case manager at the center, said many of Simitian's teachers joked with him that he should clean their houses to help pay them back for his training.

Gomez likes to take advantage of the highly discounted airline tickets -- perks of working for Northwest -- to visit family members in Argentina, vacation in Europe and take weekend hops to Florida.

At Northwest Airlines, they work alongside two other visually impaired employees at the Hanover call center. Three others work at Northwest reservations centers around the country.

With the help of a Braille display and a talking computer, the two can read with their fingers what their sighted co-workers can see on their computer screens.

"I've been wanting to get back to work for a long time," Simitian said during a break from his retraining at Northwest, where he went back to work Monday after what he quipped was "a 15-month inconvenience." Gomez went back to work at the end of September.

Overall, about 42 percent of legally blind, but otherwise healthy, people ages 18 to 69 are employed, said Corinne Kirchner, director of policy research and program evaluation at the American Foundation for the Blind.

Many advocates for the blind blame discrimination and the high cost of accommodating such employees for the low level of employment among the visually impaired. The equipment used by Simitian and Gomez at Northwest costs $10,000 to $15,000 more than that for employees who aren't blind.

Federal funds cover 80 percent of the costs of training; state funds pay the rest. State officials say it's well worth the investment.

Kathi Long, spokeswoman for the state Division of Rehabilitation Services, noted a recent study that found that blind or severely visually impaired workers who receive similar training are usually able to pay back the cost through their taxes in two to four years.

That's good news for Maryland. During his tenure at Northwest, Simitian has twice sold more than $1 million in airline tickets in a year.

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