- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

Northern Virginia's latest effort to fill the shortage of information technology workers has led them to the region's blind middle school children.

The Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind last week announced a pilot program for blind middle school children in Northern Virginia to learn computer skills at a summer camp.

If it is successful, the nonprofit organization hopes to expand it throughout its national network.

No doubt the parents of the 20 children who qualify for the summer camps will be trying to help them learn to live and work independently. The state-funded organization that is subsidizing the camp, however, is hoping to recruit talent for the high-tech industries that form the backbone of its local economy.

"It's been shown many, many times over that if you give people with disabilities marketplace skills, they will utilize them with remarkable dedication," says Pete White, marketing and industry outreach coordinator for the Northern Virginia Regional Partnership, a public-private venture dedicated to work-force development. "Many times they prove themselves in terms of work ethic to be among the best workers in the workplace."

The Partnership granted $10,000 to Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind two weeks ago to subsidize the technology summer camps. The children's parents must pay an additional $300 for each of the four two-week sessions.

The camp will be held at corporate offices and government centers throughout the northern Virginia suburbs.

Last summer, the advocacy organization for blind persons operated a similar camp for high school students. This summer, the camp will host middle school students for the first time, which Mr. White says represents an effort to capture their interest while they still are young. Middle school students range from 11 years old through 14 years old.

He says the camps are "an effort to interest and excite the young about technology, hopefully to stimulate them to move into technology as they grow older."

More than only a humanitarian effort, Mr. White says, the children could eventually represent an asset to the bottom line.

"The other issue is economic development," Mr. White says. "They represent one segment of the work force that is worth nurturing."

Among companies that have said they might hire well-trained blind persons is Unisys Corp., an information technology services company whose federal contracts division is based in McLean.

Sidney Yee, human resources business partner for Unisys, says, "Unisys strives for good talented people, regardless of their physical situation. Would they be an asset? Absolutely. If a company treats its employees well, the work force does pay it back in loyalty. We seem to realize it more with people who have some form of disability."

The summer camps will operate in two sessions, July 9-20, and July 23-Aug. 3. In one part of the program, the children will learn how to use computerized assistive devices, such as the handheld "parrot." It's a device that gives computerized voice answers to questions spoken into a receiver. Schoolchildren could use it as a calculator, to make schedules and to make notes of their assignments. Another handheld device will allow them to send and receive voice-activated e-mail.

Other parts of the summer camp are scheduled to teach Web page design, how a computer works and how to use assistive technologies to make audio and visual presentations for school and, later, jobs.

Kim Zimmer, vice president of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, says, "Seventy percent of people who are blind or visually impaired are unemployed. It's our hope that this program will help reduce that number by providing people with the skills they need to be competitive."

The 101-year-old organization, which is based in Washington, also operates an office in Kansas City. A new office is scheduled to open in two weeks in Riverdale in Prince George's County. The offices are used as bases from which employees are dispatched to provide training for blind and visually impaired persons in 98 cities nationwide.

"As far as I know, this is the only program of its kind in the region," Mrs. Zimmer says.

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