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SPECIAL FEATURE

Selective Placement Program Helps Blind, Visually Impaired Employees Be Independent

Don Mott, Brad Shorser, Alan Sprecher, and Mary Ann Stephen have several things in common. They all work for Sears. They successfully handle the challenges of important, information- intensive jobs. And they all are either blind or severely visually impaired.

Each individual represents a positive example of Sears' Selective Placement Program. The policy encourages people with disabilities to apply for any Sears job for which they believe they qualify, and to self-identify themselves for participation in the Selective Placement Program. The goal of selective placement is to match people to jobs based on what they can do, as opposed to what they cannot do. Through accommodations, Sears helps the associate to perform the job successfully.

Brad Shorser and Mary Ann Stephen have retinitis pigmentosa, a congenital, progressive disintegration of the retinas. Both have some vision. Stephen, an administrative assistant in Sears' Legal Department, is not legally blind and maintains much of the independence that fully sighted people enjoy. However, she is effectively blind at night and on hazy days and has difficulty reading.

Stephen uses a text enlarger for reading printed material and an oversized, 19-inch, high-contrast computer monitor for reading computer files. "I asked for the monitor at my physician's recommendation. The boss said, 'Whatever you need, just order it.' There are other accommodations that may seem small but are very important to me. For example, my bosses use black felt-tip markers so I can read their writing. They're happy to help me, and I appreciate it," Stephen notes.

Shorser, a 20-year Sears veteran, started as a retail management trainee but decided to focus on the operations side of the business when it became evident to him that his disability would prevent him from working in merchandising. He spent five years in two stores in operations positions, first in customer service, "where I learned how to say yes," then in personnel, "where I learned how to say no," he jokes. All the while, his retinitis pigmentosa was progressing.

"In the 1970s, my attitude concerning retinitis pigmentosa was that I had the disability, not Sears. So I paid for my own equipment," Shorser says. That equipment included an Opticon reading machine that enabled him to read 50 words a minute. "My store manager encouraged me to try it," he recalls.

He moved to the headquarters staff in Chicago in 1980, where he joined the Importing Department. Today, he is Senior Manager of Import Operations, responsible for U.S. Customs issues, domestic distribution and billing, ocean carrier logistics, and negotiations with a third- party logistics company that Sears manages.

Two principal technology accommodations--now paid for by Sears--help Shorser perform his job. They are a Kurzweil reading machine that scans text and recites it, using synthesized human speech, and an IBM PC equipped with an Alva braille display, Screen Reader software, and a voice synthesizer. "I'm becoming computer literate," Shorser says with a trace of amazement. "I appreciate the independence that brings."

Don Mott and Alan Sprecher are more than computer literate, they are computer programmers. Both are using Alva braille displays with Screen Reader software to use their personal computers more productively and accurately. "I don't know how I got along without this stuff," admits Sprecher, a six-year Sears employee who has been blind since birth. "Since I got the braille display, I'm printing out less on the braille printer, which saves time."

Sprecher is a COBOL programmer, creating mainframe sales reporting applications. He received entry-level programming training at Sears after earning an associate degree in data processing from the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Area Technical College. Sears recruited him through its contacts at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind.

What Mott needed when he joined Sears was a chance to start a new career. Before losing his sight in a 1981 accident, Mott had been an owner-operator trucker and operations manager for a trucking company. "After eight months of rehabilitation at the Illinois Visually Handicapped Institute, Mott channelled his energies into athletics and achieved his dream of competing on the U.S. Paralympic Team at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, where he placed 7th in the pentathlon for blind athletes, missing 3rd place and a bronze medal by 75 points.

"When the Olympics were over, I said to myself now what? I started looking around for computer training and found out about Program Able. After nine months at Program Able, I was interviewed by Sears and they hired me," Mott recounts. (More information on Program Able is available in this report).

Having joined Sears in late 1991, Mott now works as a programmer in Human Resources Management Systems, writing file maintenance batch programs for national user payroll and applicant tracking. He is pleased with the special computer equipment that Sears has provided.

"I had input into specifying my computer equipment," Mott explains. "I requested the Alva braille monitor. I'm happy with the way it works. It's helped us work faster and more accurately."

Mott, Shorser, Sprecher, and Stephen believe that Sears has demonstrated a commitment to fostering independence for people with disabilities. "There are no restrictions. They don't hold you back; I've had four promotions in five years," says Stephen. Mott adds, "Sears doesn't hire you because you have a disability. They hire you to do a job. I'm in the mainstream here."


The Bottom Line on Don Mott

ACCOMMODATION.................................COSTS
Alva braille display.................................$14,500
Screen Reader/2 software..........................$725
Accent voice synthesizer.........................$1,000
Total accommodations cost....................$16,225

PRODUCTIVITY

Post-accommodation: Equal to nondisabled employees
Pre-accommodation: Could not have been hired to perform present position

"Don is a great illustration of the value of specialized training programs like Program Able that allow companies like Sears to take advantage of the skills of talented people who we probably would not otherwise hire," said Bill Brannen, Department Manager, Human Resources Information Technology. "Don is an extremely creative and innovative programmer, a skill he didn't even know he had until his disability required that he be creative in identifying his own range of talents. In the process, Sears has identified a proven source of skilled, trained employees who know precisely what they require on the job, to do the job. And, we have been able to add a great asset to the company."


The Bottom Line on Brad Shorser

ACCOMMODATION..............................COSTS
Kurzweil reading machine.............................$10,000
Alva braille display.......................................$14,500
Accent voice synthesizer................................$1,000
Screen Reader/2 software................................$725
Total accommodations cost............................$26,225

PRODUCTIVITY

Post-accommodation: Senior manager position in one of the largest import businesses in the United States, supervising a staff of 15
Pre-accommodation: Would not have been able to perform present job

"Brad has 20 years of expertise that you can't put a price tag on," said Bill Ginsburg, Director of International Import Operations. "You can't measure or quantify what Sears gets out of the relatively modest accommodations he requires that allow us to benefit from his expertise. At the bottom line, Brad is extremely good at what he does. Though imports is a visual business, Brad is very good and accurate at being able to envision things he can't actually see. I have as much faith in him as I do in anyone else. I trust and value his judgment."


The Bottom Line on Alan Sprecher

ACCOMMODATION.....................................COSTS
Alva braille display.....................................$14,500
Screen Reader/2 software..............................$725
Accent voice synthesizer.............................$1,000
Total accommodations cost.........................$16,225

PRODUCTIVITY

Post-accommodation: Equal to nondisabled employees, braille display over printer represents a 10 to 1 savings in time
Pre-accommodation: Could not have been hired to perform present position

"Though technically Alan's job description has to do with designing, coding, and testing computer programs, he is above all a problem solver. He analyzes problems and comes up with solutions--and that's what his job calls for," said Mike Offerman, Systems Consultant, Project Leader. "His disability is not a factor. He knows his programs inside and out and has tremendous insight, a great analytical mind, and a positive attitude. What more could I ask for? He's been here six years. The accommodation was 'paid for' long ago.


The Bottom Line on Mary Ann Stephen

ACCOMMODATION..............................COSTS
Text enlarger......................................$2,500
High-contrast computer monitor.............$5,000
Total accommodations cost..................$7,500

PRODUCTIVITY

Post-accommodation: Equal to nondisabled employees
Pre-accommodation: Would not have been able to continue to perform present job

"I don't think of Mary Ann as having a disability," said Laura Plank, an attorney in Marketing Practices. "This is probably the best example of the value of her accommodations. I think of her as a responsive, productive, hard worker who performs equally with everyone else on the team. She has a good attitude, is willing to do any task we ask of her, and in short she doesn't let anything stop her, certainly not her visual problem that can be accommodated by special equipment."