- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Kelly Hightower-Spruillcan’t see what happens at a new business seminar, but she does visualize the program opening more doors for a higher level job.

Ms. Hightower-Spruill, a 33-year-old, Raleigh, N.C., resident, is one of 29 blind employees participating in a business management-training workshop designed to prepare blind people for senior management roles in the blind community and corporate America.

The program, which started this week in Falls Church and will run in segments for 18 months, is presented by the National Industries for the Blind, an Alexandria nonprofit group that employs blind people through its network of 85 affiliated agencies.

“Very few blind people have executive titles or responsibilities,” said Jim Gibbons, the organization’s chief executive officer and president. Mr. Gibbons said the program will give the participants greater marketability in the business world.

All of the students are independently mobile and have laptops, which are used primarily for reading or listening to articles discussed in the classes. Additionally, they all work for nonprofit, blind groups that are part of the National Industries for the Blind’s network.

The participants will continue to travel from as far as Seattle to finish the program, which is set up in five, one-week intervals. The courses will touch on management, finance, marketing, production, human resources, communication and planning.

While students must keep up with their day jobs and have the approval from their chief executive to attend, the $20,000 tuition, travel and lodging costs are covered by the National Industries for the Blind, Mr. Gibbons said.

The organization won two grants worth nearly $500,000 from the U.S. Education Department, while its board of directors made a more than $600,000 investment in the program.

James McCarthy, a spokesman for the National Federation for the Blind, applauded the group’s efforts but said the training would not be enough for corporate executives to give the participants high-level jobs. He advised blind employees to take more traditional education routes, like getting a master’s degree from a reputable institution.

There are about 1.1 million legally blind Americans, 70 percent of whom are unemployed, according to the Baltimore membership organization for blind people.

But several students said they saw the program as a steppingstone.

“I think this is going to be a good opportunity to expand my current job functions,” said Ken Fernald, an operations vice president at the Association for Vision Rehabilitation and Employment Inc. in Binghamton, N.Y.

Ms. Hightower-Spruill, an assistant director for service development at the Raleigh Lions Clinic for the Blind Inc., said the program was a “test run” to determine whether she wanted to pursue a master’s degree.

“I’ll just see how well I do here,” she said.

The participants had just been in a practical and ethical behavior class in the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration building on a recent morning.

Mr. Gibbon’s organization teamed up with the university to have three of its professors teach the program.

Inside an acoustical classroom, students debated the negative and positive outcomes from actions taken in a case study to save a fictional company from financial ruin.

While none of the students could see whether they were being called on, Andrew Wicks, a Darden associate professor for ethics, kept the dialogue flowing smoothly.

Erika James, a Darden associate professor for leadership and organizational behavior and head teacher for the program, said the professors have made very few changes from their normal teaching patterns.

Ms. James said she still uses overhead projections and writes on the marker board as a teaching aid. “I just describe what I am writing or showing,” she said.

Daniel Novielli, a fellow with Mr. Gibbon’s association in Lancaster, Pa., said the group’s assistance with the logistics, such as transportation to class, accommodations and reading materials formatted for blind people, has helped him focus more than he would on a regular class.

“The support we got even before going to class has really made a lot of difference,” said Mr. Novielli, sitting next to his guide dog, Venice.

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