SCORE hits one for diversity

When 26 teenagers arrived at the SCORE summer camp on July 1, they had a lot more in store for them than swimming and horseback riding.

The CNIB Gretzky SCORE (Summer Computer Opportunities in Recreation and Education) Teen Camp brought together blind, deaf-blind and visually impaired teenagers from across Canada – and one from Australia – to receive hands-on training and experience with technology for Web development at IBM Canada Ltd.’s headquarters in Markham, Ont.

Mentored by IBM employees who themselves are blind or visually impaired, the students were not only given an opportunity to use state of the art software and hardware, but were able to learn more about career choices in IT.

SCORE mentor and IBM employee Rejean Proulx, admitted that the participants are likely to open up to the mentors because they encounter similar issues in everyday life. The father of a blind son, Proulx thanked Walter Gretzky for his participation in the program, “from one dad to another…for becoming like a dad to a lot of blind and visually impaired kids.” Gretzky was on hand to congratulate the camp’s participants.

At the camp’s end, its participants unveiled Web pages that had been designed by the teenagers over the last few weeks. Working in teams, the teenagers were given opportunities to write HTML coding and receive training in Windows 98, MS Office 2000, HTML editing, Netscape Navigator 4.6, and Internet Explorer 5.0. they were also given access to technology such as JAWS for Windows, WindowEyes and ZoomText Extra.

As a SCORE mentor and co-op student for IBM Learning Services Jennison Asuncion has more than a passing interest in the camp: he himself was once a SCORE camper. Asuncion believes that what is experienced at the camp can be carried back to the participants’ homes.

“In high schools now, a lot of them are wired and have access to computers and things,” Asuncion said. “Unfortunately, not all of these teenagers will have access to the computers because they don’t have the correct software that they need, whether it’s screen magnification or software that reads on the screen. Coming to SCORE might be their first opportunity to see that kind of software too. It gives them the opportunity to say, when they go home, ‘hey, I got to use this software. How can I get a hold of it?'”

IBM Canada hopes that the SCORE program not only encourages the teens to become more interested in technology, but to keep the company in mind when the are looking for jobs after university. This is just one initiative put forward by IBM to encourage diversity in the workplace, according to Toronto-based Susan Turner, IBM Canada’s director of diversity and workplace programs.

In order to ensure that every individual has equal consideration when applying for a position within the company, IBM has developed a program whereby managers on expense lines are relieved of any additional costs that might come with hiring persons with special needs.

“We have an accommodation fund that centralizes costs associated with special needs,” Turner explained. “At a Canadian level, we take the cost off of the department level, so that every employee has what they need and managers have no barriers to making a decision to hire someone with special needs. If a person who is visually impaired needs special software to do work at a terminal, or a braille printer, we pick up that cost. So what could be a barrier to a manager making a hiring decision is automatically removed.”

IBM isn’t the only company with programs designed to create a more diverse workplace. Hewlett-Packard Canada provides its talent acquisition team with special diversity training, but according to Roger Hohenstein, Hewlett-Packard’s diversity manager for Canada, each employee’s needs and challenges are accommodated on an individual basis.

“We try to accommodate our employees on a one to one basis, and provide assistance based on what is required by the individual,” Hohenstein said from his Richmond, B.C. office. “For example, we have people who are hearing impaired, which provides a new set of challenges, so we have had employees trained on sign language, which is invaluable from a communication standpoint.”

Sylvy Fogarty, Hewlett-Packard Canada’s talent acquisition manager stressed that creating a diverse and accepting workplace is a top priority for the company, starting at the top.

“Carly Fiorina [CEO, chairman and president of Hewlett-Packard] made diversity one of the company’s top three business objectives last year,” Montreal-based Fogarty said. “We have a special program set up to adapt all current and future products and services and make them accessible to everyone.”

Despite the programs and mandates set up by companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard, both companies admit that they haven’t achieved the perfect balance quite yet.

“I think that HP has a long tradition of being very open and tolerant,” Hohenstein explained. “Overall, I think we do a pretty good job, but I keep saying that we have a ways to go, and that’s good. It keeps us working on it. If you feel like you’ve achieved what you want to achieve, you become complacent.”

Part two will focus on visible minorities in IT.