Success Stories

Sharyl AyotteSharlyn Ayotte

Sharlyn Ayotte’s career has always been about turning obstacles into opportunity.

Ayotte is the founder of T-Base Communications, an alternative-format and web accessibility company headquartered in Ottawa, Ontario. She created the company 20 years ago and currently works as its Chief Strategy Officer.

“I am very fortunate today to work with a diverse group of highly skilled and talented professionals, who support a mission I’m very passionate about, but the path that led me to this point was a long and challenging one,” she says.

In the beginning

In the 1970s, Ayotte was a researcher working in a semi-conductor laboratory when she began to lose her sight. After a period of adjustment, she decided to refocus her original career goals, returning to school to learn computer programming. Over the next year, she developed some important skills she still uses today, including logic, linear thinking and the basics of system design.

“The relationships I developed while in school with other blind course participants taught me invaluable coping techniques and tricks for working around the many other challenges I encountered along the way,” Ayotte notes.

Surprises all around

Ayotte soon discovered she was not meant to be a computer programmer, so instead she landed a job in technology sales. However, she didn’t have a face-to-face meeting with anyone at her new company until a month after accepting the job. She arrived at her new employer’s office with her CCTV machine in hand.

“There sure were some surprised people, but no one was more surprised than me when I received a call from the president of the company asking whether there was anything he could do to make my job easier,” says Ayotte. “As a result of that conversation and the ongoing support I received, I worked my heart out for them.”

A new direction, again

Eight years later, the business folded as a result of a recession, and Ayotte was out of her sales job. She was interested in IT security at the time, and because she never wanted to write another resume or give another presentation, she decided to start her own business. The IT security market was not yet fully developed, and for the next two years, she learned a lot about “bleeding edge technology “ (technology that is so new it is risky, since it may not yet be reliable or meet a user’s needs).

In 1992 Ayotte learned about the passage of government legislation that guaranteed access to publicly available government and regulated industry information in alternative formats for blind or partially sighted Canadians. She began placing orders for these materials herself and discovered that her requests took anywhere from six weeks to ten months to be fulfilled.

 “I quickly surmised that on a department by department, program by program, and service by service basis, the government had no consistent approach to providing timely delivery of documents in usable and accessible formats,” she says.

Inspiration found

Her company mission suddenly became crystal clear, and at that point Ayotte founded T-Base Communications to provide government, financial and telecommunications sectors with secure alternative-format production services to meet the diverse needs of their clients. 

Today, T-Base has grown to encompass two production facilities (in Ottawa and New York state), and serves companies, governments, and organizations right across Canada. 

“My inspiration was always my own inability to decipher everyday documents such as my monthly bills and bank statements without assistance,” says Ayotte.

“I know that other blind consumers were experiencing the same level of frustration. And I was fortunate enough to have the background and skills to impact and facilitate change. It was always about turning obstacles into opportunity.”

Jason Mitschele

Jason and his guide dogNow’s a good time to pursue a career in law if you’re blind or partially sighted according to Jason Mitschele, a prosecutor in the federal Department of Justice in Toronto, Ontario.

“In the legal profession, there really shouldn’t be any boundaries because of technology and advancements in the last 20 years,” he says. “For a while, law schools weren’t used to seeing people with disabilities. Now, it’s much more frequent.”

Mitschele has been at his current workplace for about eight years – since he began articling in 2002 right out of law school (he did his law degree at the University of Toronto). He specializes in criminal law, particularly drug prosecutions and cases involving organized crime.

“I have a great career – really interesting work, with wonderful, supportive colleagues.” he says.

Accommodated on the job

Although there are always challenges, Mitschele generally finds that he’s able to work around most barriers to do his job. He uses accessible technology like JAWS for electronic communications and consults legal databases like Quicklaw to pull precedents, which he finds to be accessible. Some of his work involves non-electronic documents such as handwritten notes from police officers, but he has an assistant who summarizes them for him.

Then there’s visual evidence such as photographs or video. He’ll have his assistant describe these so he’s fully briefed before he presents this evidence in court. Sometimes the court itself orders a description of evidence into the official transcript. At times, he will give photos to witnesses and have them describe them in their own words. He will also ask witnesses to read written documents out loud. “I don’t have to do much to it, because it [visual evidence] sort of speaks for itself,” he says.

Study and travel

Mitschele has volunteered for NEADS (National Educational Association of Disabled Students). He has also been involved on the international development committee of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, a role that allowed him to go to New York City and participate in meetings to develop the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (passed in 2006).

He did his undergrad in international relations at the University of British Columbia, and spent one year as an exchange student at the University of California, Berkeley.

While studying for his law degree, Mitschele participated in two internships in South Africa. During his first, he did research projects about environmental law, and the next year, he did work around human rights law for people with disabilities. The post-apartheid constitution had only recently been adopted, so it was a pretty exciting time to be involved. “The legal system was being written from scratch,” Mitschele says.

He highly recommends international internships for boosting a resume and obtaining valuable professional skills such as time management and learning how to deal with different people, situations and cultures. He notes that his internships were a major topic of discussion at the interview for his job.

Advice

He advises students to specialize in subjects they enjoy for their undergraduate degree, because they are more likely to get the high grades needed for law school admission. While some people assume you have to take a certain type of program to prepare for law school, Mitschele says that’s not true.

He also emphasizes believing in yourself. “Don’t let people talk you out of your goal,” he says. “It’s not easy, but nothing worth having really ever is. Work hard, but also work smart. Find the most efficient way to work, and that is very individual.”

He recommends developing a good support network (whether it be parents, friends, classmates, colleagues, or a combination of the above) – and the right attitude.

“You have to have a good personality and be outgoing. Sure you’re going to have problems, but you have to work your way through. In life, we’re all going to face problems and challenges and barriers. The key is how you overcome them.”

Sharon Kanhai

Sharon Kanhai was already planning Sharon at the computera career change when she lost most of her vision. But while adjusting to blindness was understandably difficult, it also put her on a path to an exciting new career.

A difficult time

Kanhai had been working as a legal assistant in Toronto, Ontario, for eight years, when she first noticed her vision changing. She had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at 11, and at the age of 25, she developed diabetic retinopathy. When it became apparent that her vision was permanently affected, Kanhai was devastated. She wasn’t at all sure how she was going to proceed in her life and career.

“It was like I had run into a brick wall along life’s path and didn’t know what I was going to do next,” she says.

But then she connected with a CNIB rehabilitation specialist who turned out to be blind as well – someone who became a bit of a mentor for her. “Bruno was patient and caring, and he always inspired me and encouraged me to remain positive,” says Kanhai. “He was a great example of how someone can overcome a challenge and go on to do many great things.”

New direction

Fast forward five years, and Kanhai is today on track for a fulfilling new job in the social services field – either as a social worker or a vision rehabilitation specialist.

She is in her second year of a two-year program at George Brown College, and she will soon receive her Social Service Worker diploma.

Next fall she will be looking for work in her field. She may do further studies part-time to obtain a social work degree. She’s also considering a program at Mohawk College that will qualify her to instruct people who are blind or partially sighted.

“My direction will depend on what job opportunities are out there in future, but my priority is to work with people who are blind or partially sighted,” she says. “I hope to be able to help others through what I went through, to help them navigate the difficult times and go on to realize their potential.”

Already a mentor

Kanhai already mentors others who are newly diagnosed with vision loss. She is happy to share her experience and provide encouragement .

“I can help if you are considering a social work program. And if you’ve just lost your vision and you’re not sure what to do in your career as a result, I might be able to offer some advice and support,” she says. “And the first thing I’d say is: Just don’t give up!”

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