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For the Blind, Visions of Greatness

By Suzanne Robitaille Jim Gibbons wants to see more employers take chances on the blind. As CEO of the National Industries for the Blind (NIB), Gibbons is credited with creating Business Management Training (BMT), an MBA-level course that prepares legally blind workers for management jobs. The first 29 students started in September, and he's confident that within five years some of the program's graduates could become chief executives.

That's an ambitious goal. According to recent data, 70% of legally blind Americans of working age are unemployed, and those with jobs often work in computer science or education, or in service jobs in the federal sphere. Few opportunities exist for the blind to become leaders in business, where the bulk of the nation's jobs are, says Gibbons. Educators aren't encouraging the blind to take jobs in the corporate world, and employers need to "open their minds to the capabilities of those who are blind," he says. "The hurdle that must be overcome is in the commercial marketplace."

DARDEN PROFESSORS. Gibbons hopes BMT will improve these odds. The Alexandria (Va.)-based NIB convinced its 85 agencies around the U.S. -- nonprofit businesses where the majority of employees are blind and qualify as preferred suppliers to the federal government -- to recommend some exceptional workers with leadership potential. The classes are taught by professors at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at its satellite facility in Falls Church, Va.

"We were asking our agencies to put their money where their mouth was, to bet on the capabilities of these folks, so they could advance rapidly in a more competitive environment," Gibbons says.

Drawing on the strongest assets of B-school, such as the core management education, the case-study methods, and the social network that has formed among students, BMT has the look and feel of a traditional MBA program -- albeit a shorter one. Set up in five, one-week sessions every two months, the program allows students to get leaves of absence from their jobs to travel to Falls Church, where they study general business, finance and accounting, human resources, information technology, operations management and production, and marketing. In the afternoons, the class breaks up into small teams for case studies.

DOG DAYS. At the end of each week, students present their solutions for evaluation. "This is at MBA-level, comparable to the regular MBA classes at Darden," says Tom Cross, Darden's senior director of executive education.

To accommodate the blind students' needs, professors use verbal cues when they're writing on the blackboard. Most students use laptops, and all the coursework is delivered electronically, allowing it to be downloaded in whatever format they prefer -- large print, Braille, or audio. Guide dogs are allowed in the classrooms -- an "added perk for the faculty," who often fall in love with the dogs, Cross adds.

After the fifth and final session, graduates go back to their jobs -- only this time, they'll start training for management positions. A few outfits and nonprofit agencies already have blind CEOs, but 75% of the NIB's 5,000 agency-employed workers are involved in direct labor and services, making products like cleaning chemicals or operating call centers. There is "not enough of a representation," says Gibbons, who would like to see two or three of his BMT graduates make CEO in five years. He also longs for those in direct labor to earn management positions and for anyone in between to advance into executive roles.

"MAJOR OBSTACLE." Dan Kelly says he's ready for the challenge. He's attending BMT and works at the NIB's headquarters as a national account manager, helping the U.S. Postal Service and Agriculture Dept. develop new products to help the blind better perform their jobs. "It was an honor to be selected as a participant," Kelly says. "The Darden program provides the corporate training and real-world look into NIB's associated agencies."

Darden's Cross calls Kelly an "exceptionally smart" student. Kelly is also working toward his MBA at night at George Mason University and hopes to land a management position within a corporation, perhaps within human resources.

For most, however, BMT isn't expected to be a jumping point for a traditional MBA. With the cost of such a degree at $100,000 or more, many blind students simply can't afford it. Scholarships and loans are available, but there's a lower return on investment for the blind because an MBA is less likely to translate into a high-paying job on Wall Street. Gibbons was able to secure two grants of nearly $500,000 from the U.S. Education Dept., while the NIB's board of directors made an investment of over $600,000. The total cost to students for the $20,000 program, which includes tuition, travel, and food and housing: $0.

Gibbons' own experience helped convince him of the need for such a program. He has a degree in engineering and was the first blind person to receive an MBA from Harvard. He worked for several years in operations and marketing at a subsidiary of AT&T (T), and he recalls the hurdle of trying to sell himself -- "a blind engineer" -- to companies. "It was a major obstacle to get them to take a chance on me," he says.

CHANGING ATTITUDES. So when Gibbons arrived at the NIB six years ago, starting the business-training program was a priority. "He went from sort of a role model to a player -- someone who wanted to make a change," says Carl Augusto, CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Augusto calls BMT "an important milestone," but because it's designed for NIB employees, he doesn't think it will have the sort of major impact he would like on Corporate America. While the 1990 American with Disabilities Act prohibits job discrimination and requires companies to provide reasonable accommodations, such as assistive technology, Augusto says the greatest barrier to the blind finding work is employers' lack of awareness. "We need to convince companies that blind people can do the jobs that are available, because employers' attitudes dictate their behavior," he says.

The NIB's Business Management Training program may be able to help change those attitudes. It's a practical step in the right direction for creating career paths and opportunities for the blind, and for training a group that's often overlooked when future leaders are being groomed. Robitaille is a copy editor for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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