The jobs counselor looked at the young man with the white cane, and asked, "Well, son, do you want to run a vending stand?"
"No," said Dale Otto, who was hoping his job experience and recent degree from Xavier College would lead to a management job in a big company.
But the counselor saw nothing beyond Otto's blindness and could think of no future beyond the few jobs traditionally held by blind people. How about working in the state rehabilitation office or tuning pianos?
When Otto--who has been blind since birth--demurred, the man stood and put out his hand. "Well, that's all we've got," he said. "Good luck to you, son."
That was 20 years ago, says Otto, who is now 46, but very little has changed. Even in a boom economy, with a low unemployment rate, 70 percent of working-age blind people are without jobs.
But Otto is determined to reduce that percentage in the Washington area, where an estimated 20,000 blind people live. Otto, the first blind CEO of the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, is shaking things up.
He started his tenure five years ago with a daring and internally controversial move: He closed the sheltered workshop that made floor pads for federal offices--a dead-end job in a city without a manufacturing industry--and began preparing people for the real jobs Washington has to offer.
On his desk today sits a freshly photocopied stack of biographies of CEOs at the 58 largest high-tech companies in Northern Virginia. They don't know it yet, but they will soon be hearing from him.
"You need workers, and you can't afford to overlook an important labor pool," he said he'll tell them. "Blind people can use computers as well as anyone--I know because my organization is training them. And they aren't likely to jump from job to job because, frankly, the opportunities aren't there."
The Lighthouse is about $350,000 shy of the $1 million needed to open a major career center at the nonprofit at 14th and P streets NW. But though he won't turn down donations, that's not what Otto wants most from the executives.
"I think we can get some real partnerships going," he said. Executives could be involved in designing training programs to fit their exact needs: The Lighthouse would deliver the newly trained workers.
"We could even move on-site to finish the training until the workers hit peak performance," said Matt Ater, who heads a Lighthouse computer program that last year trained 400 people on adaptive technology.
Ater, who with only slight tunnel vision is legally blind, oversees six staffers and 50 contractors, most of them blind. Last year they traveled to all 50 states to train 250 federal workers.
"I can train anyone who has typing skills," he said.
"The idea is to offer choices," said Otto. "There is nothing wrong with caning chairs or tuning pianos. But it's like women before liberation: There is nothing wrong with being a teacher or a nurse. But independence means freedom from being put in a slot."
One of the hurdles to getting more blind people into the work force is the risk they face of losing guaranteed health benefits. Blind people can qualify for Supplemental Security Income because of their disability.
Until 1996, blind and elderly people were able to earn the same amounts before being cut off SSI; that year, in a cost-cutting measure, Congress lowered the earning cap for the blind. A bill pending before Congress would treat the blind the same as the elderly, allowing them to earn $15,500 before cutting benefits.
A job club at the Lighthouse currently is attended by two out-of-work attorneys, a number of administrative aides and secretaries, and people with experience in human resources, marketing, public relations and computers.
But they face formidable odds.
Robbie Figueroa, who lost her sight three years ago, has a bachelor of science degree, computer skills and experience in personnel and human resources. But she said she can sense employer shock when she walks in for an interview.
"Even your friends think you can't do anything," Figueroa said recently. "At a friend's house for dinner I offered to cut up the vegetables, and she said no, she didn't want me to cut myself."
Margaret Buzzard has been looking for a secretarial job for six months and has had seven interviews. She studied at a community college and trained on Microsoft Word, Excel and Access, but no job has been offered.
"I tell them I have a handicap but I make accommodations, and they say it's not a problem. But I don't get hired," she said. "Maybe it's not discrimination. Maybe someone else is better qualified."
There is no use feeling victimized, said Otto: "Life is too short to be miserable." But he urges people to fight on and to make opportunities. It's what he's been doing since he turned 16 and decided he wanted a job like everybody else.
He pounded the commercial strip of Evergreen Park, Ill., the Chicago suburb that was his home. After many rejections, he took great hope from an exchange with the owner of a neighborhood grocery store. The man said he'd keep Otto in mind.
Only later did Otto realize that the man didn't even know his name, so how would he contact him? He had been brushed off again. Eventually he got a job as a switchboard operator at his high school. And in college, when the placement office did nothing for him, he went to the college president. He didn't say that he had had problems with the placement office; he just asked for a job. He got one.
Otto volunteered for numerous political campaigns, graduated from law school, worked in the personnel department of an insurance company and was hired as a junior executive in a major bank.
The bank later loaned him to a new government jobs program. He set up training for the economically disadvantaged, monitored the finances, formed partnerships with companies and eventually helped establish a nonprofit organization that forms partnerships between businesses and low-income workers.
"What if I'd said yes to the vending stand years ago?" Otto said. "What if I'd responded, 'Well, if that's all you have, okay.' What if I'd decided my dreams didn't matter?"
CAPTION: Will Mincey, a Camp Lighthouse volunteer, introduces campers for a song presentation. Columbia Lighthouse, which runs the camp, promotes independence for blind people.
CAPTION: Dale Otto, CEO of Columbia Lighthouse, speaks to Le Ha Anderson at the camp's end.
CAPTION: Otto, who wants to place blind workers in more jobs, reads over his speech.