When you get right down to it, most people have only a handful of truly pivotal moments in their lives.
And, of those incredibly formative occasions, arguably the most commonly shared among people from all walks of life is a person’s first job.
The initial interview, the nervousness, the anxiety, the anxiousness – most people can immediately transport themselves back to the circumstances and feelings associated with their first day of their first job.
Brooke Petro is no different. Well, perhaps except for the fact that she has a degenerative retinal condition and is legally blind.
Not that it makes much of a difference.
In fact, Petro recently completed a summer internship with C&C Group, a company that provides building infrastructure support through technology-focused solutions to organizations around the nation.
Not too shabby for someone who’s about to enter their sophomore year of high school.
But, like the rest of us, Brooke had those same feelings of trepidation. And, not just about her first day on the job. In her case, she was nervous about even having the opportunity to have those feelings given that the unemployment rate for people with low vision is above 70 percent.
“I was worried that I might not be able to have the same experience of having a high school job like my friends,” Petro said.
A longtime supporter of Alphapointe, C&C Group shared that the organization wanted to create an internship opportunity for a high school student with vision loss. Petro, who participated in Alphapointe youth programs for a number of years and is a six-time Braille Challenge national champion, immediately surfaced as a potential candidate.
Next thing you know, Petro landed her first job.
“I was very nervous on that first day,” Petro said. “I knew the basics of what I would be doing, but I was worried about something possibly going wrong.”
It didn’t take long for that bit of anxiety to go away.
“Everyone at C&C Group was so nice and after just a few hours, I felt comfortable and knew that if I needed anything, I wouldn’t be too nervous to ask for help.”
Being comfortable asking for help is a skill that evades many adults – let alone someone who is still in high school. On top of that, there’s an added stigma – an incorrect one – that a person with low vision worries about when considering asking for help.
“I’m like a lot of people in that I’m nervous about asking for help because I’m afraid people will judge me because I’m blind,” Petro said. “Everyone at C&C Group understood that I had just a few extra things that I’d need to work out – things like figuring out what all of the buttons on the phone did, which is actually something that a sighted person would need too.”
Petro worked three days per week from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. throughout the summer. During that time, she was the initial contact for people who called C&C Group’s main phone number. If you’re counting – and Petro wasn’t – that’s hundreds and hundreds of phone calls. That’s where being a braille expert played an instrumental role.
“I had a braille document of all of the codes I needed to enter into the phone in order to transfer calls to specific people,” Petro said. “Having it in braille was very helpful because it meant I didn’t need to memorize names and numbers for dozens of different people.”
When she wasn’t directing phone traffic, Petro spent a considerable amount of time creating Excel spreadsheets and entering/manipulating a significant amount of data/information.
“I was nervous about Excel because with any program you worry about how accessible it will be and how difficult it will be to learn,” she said. “With Excel, you can search for voiceover commands online, which was very helpful. It was definitely a bit nerve-wracking, but once I spent some time with the application, it was actually pretty easy. Working with Excel and similar applications is an important skill that you can use in a lot of different jobs, so I’m really happy that I had the opportunity to use the program in a professional setting.”
A person’s first job often leads to a number of life-long lessons. For Petro, a particular credo rose to the top of the list.
“There were times when I didn’t know what to do and one of the most important lessons I learned is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, you need to be very polite,” Petro said laughing. “As long as you’re polite, 99.9 percent of the time, people will be polite back to you.
“It’s actually pretty interesting because several people told me that they assumed I was in college because of the way I answered the phones and how I worked at being as professional as I could.”
Like many people with vision loss, Petro understood that this opportunity wasn’t necessarily just about her. In a way, she was serving as a representative of the blindness community – something she took very seriously.
Petro viewed her internship as an opportunity to demonstrate that a person who is blind can do just about anything a sighted person can do in a work setting. And it was important for her to overcome any misconceptions people might have about someone with low vision.
“A lot of sighted people worry about things that a blind person would never worry about – things like how a person who’s blind will get around an office,” she said. “In my case, it took me one visit to memorize everywhere I would need to go and I never really had to ask for help in getting around.
“Sighted people might worry about how a blind person would use technology,” Petro said. “For me, I just memorized where all the buttons were on the phone. I brought my laptop in each day so that I could use any applications or programs that I might need. I understand why sighted people might worry, but people who are blind learn pretty quickly and it shouldn’t be as much of a concern as it might be.”
To her peers also looking to secure that initial job, Petro offers sage advice.
“I would suggest people practice braille because it makes things so much more efficient,” she said. “I would also suggest that people use organizations such as Alphapointe because they will probably know other organizations that would be most likely to be interested in hiring someone who is blind. I also think it’s important during an interview to be up front about what you need and to help sighted people become more comfortable. At the end of the day, just because you might be blind doesn’t mean you can’t do the job.”
Ultimately, like so many people, what Petro gained during her first job will likely last for a lifetime.
“This internship proved to me that I can get a job,” she said. “When you hear the unemployment statistics for people who are blind, it can worry you a lot because you could assume that many people wouldn’t think I could handle a job. Because of the internship with C&C Group, it helped my confidence because I did a really good job and it helped me realize that I can do this in the future when I look for jobs after college.”
“I’m really grateful to C&C Group for giving me this opportunity and I’m really happy that I was able to be a contributor to their organization,” Petro said. “They were willing to take a chance on me and I’ll always remember that.”