Health And Family

Smart programmers learn from blind teammate

- Cyril Bonabente - The Philippine Star

Manila, Philippines -  When Rhoda Santos, manager at Smart Communications, Inc., hired a computer programmer who was blind, she wasn’t worried so much about how the recruit would fit in as how the team would receive the newcomer.

No doubt, she said, the programmers would warmly welcome Rhea Guntalilib, who was, after all, qualified for the job. But Santos was concerned about how to prepare her team for Rhea’s arrival.

“I was worried that we might not be able to assist her properly or that we might inadvertently do or say something inappropriate,” Santos intimated. 

She brought the matter to the human resources department, which consequently arranged a sensitivity training with the Leonard Cheshire Disability Philippines Foundation, Inc. (LCDPFI). The group is the local partner of the UK-based NGO dedicated to promoting the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs), helping them to attain educational equality and economic independence so that they may actively participate in social, cultural, political and civil life.

 Weeks before Rhea came on board, her would-be teammates underwent orientation on working with PWDs.

“One of the most important things to remember is that each PWD is a person, not a disability,” said Hazel Joy Borja of LCDPFI. “Unfortunately, many people simply focus on what PWDs cannot do, forgetting that PWDs have their own set of talents and abilities.”

Rhea, who lost her vision at age 18 due to retinal disease, was able to finish a computer science course at Informatics.

“Do not assume that she always needs help. Ask her first if she needs assistance,” Borja told the programmers. “Do not be patronizing or over-sympathetic.”

For example, at lunch, instead of trying to feed her, co-workers could describe the position of the utensils on the table. “You can say her plate is in the 12 o’clock position, and that her glass is at two o’ clock. Do not do for her what she can do for herself,” Borja explained.

If Rhea needs to sit down or get up and walk, she said, “do not push her down the chair.” It is better simply to lead her to the seat and let her feel it. “If she needs assistance in walking, let her find the hook of your arm, then gently lead her, describing the terrain as you go along so she wouldn’t stumble,” Borja said.

To make it easier for Rhea to find her work station by herself, Smart placed rubber floor markings from the entrance of the department where she works all the way to her terminal. Also, her computer has a software that reads aloud whatever is typed on the screen. This helps her code programs for mobile phone transactions.

Santos’ team also formed a buddy system, wherein one person is assigned per day to assist Rhea if needed.

Rhea appreciates everything that the company and her team are doing. “Most of all, I appreciate that my teammates know exactly where to draw the line when it comes to giving me special treatment. They only help me when I have questions and when there are activities that require vision.”

“It feels so liberating. It feels so good,” she added.

In the first place, Rhea does not need much assistance, according to her own team leader. Santos described her as “very independent.” At first, she thought that the buddy system would affect the team’s productivity, but it turned out to be beneficial.

Rhea serves as an inspiration for her teammates to do their job well.

“She cannot see, but like us, she was able to finish college and now she’s doing the same thing we’re doing,” said Charlene Joy Tuazon. “Her determination to succeed is infectious. She challenges us to work as hard as she does.”

Indeed, PWDs can be productive members of society, but sadly, it is sometimes society that disables them by not giving them the chance to overcome obstacles, Borja said. “Once we give PWDs education and work opportunities, we will see that they can be capable individuals who are just different from us in some ways.”

The World Health Organization estimates that 10 percent of the population in developing countries have a disability. “If we apply that to the Philippine setting, it means there are about nine million PWDs in the country. But how many Filipino PWDs are gainfully employed?” Borja asked.

“This is why we at LCDPFI are happy that Smart hired Rhea. There are very few companies that hire people who are blind. We are also glad that Smart requested this training session. It only shows that they sincerely want to provide an inclusive work environment for Rhea,” she said.

Santos said that while she and her programmers learned a lot from the sensitivity training, they learned so much more from Rhea. 

“Sometimes you complain that your job is hard and that you have so many problems, and then you meet someone like Rhea. Here is a woman who doesn’t complain even when faced with difficulty. She just works hard. She helps you realize that no problem is insurmountable,” Santos said.

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