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Sounds of Success: The VOICE Program at LAB

A little over two years ago, the affiliates of the Talking Information Center (TIC) met, as they do on a regular basis. Perhaps it seemed like just another normal get-together of the various agencies involved in disseminating news and information to visually impaired Massachusetts residents, but an idea was born on that day that is continuing to grow and resonate throughout the state. A single thought brought forth by our own Executive Director, Elizabeth Cannon, to create a program that teaches broadcasting and communications skills to further the careers of visually impaired job seekers, has now become a reality. Today, it is known as the Vocational Opportunities in Communications Education program, more commonly known as VOICE.

Recently, this exciting 16-week class was featured on Horizons, a TIC show that highlights various services provided by the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB). Our own VOICE graduate and instructor Jim Barrett sat down with LAB Executive Director Elizabeth Cannon and Steve Bears, who is the first student to successfully complete VOICE here at LAB.

Any time someone has a good idea such as this program surely was, there are many steps that go into the process of bringing it to fruition. VOICE is no exception. Over the past two years and with funding help from the Greater Lowell Community Foundation and MCB, we constructed a new studio space here at our office. As a result, the equipment has been upgraded and is now state of the art, improving the students’ learning experience, as well as the quality of the programs that result. As Elizabeth so eloquently stated, this program gives “an opportunity for people to learn how to use the technology and think about jobs in the communications field.” And because of careful planning mixed with a heaping portion of generosity and hard work, we now have a space and a curriculum we can all be proud of.

Word got around about this exciting opportunity. One of the many who heard about it was MCB Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Darren Black. He just happened to mention VOICE to Steve Bears, one of his visually impaired clients, and the rest is history. Although he had a vision problem even as a child, Steve was relatively new to the so-called “blindness system.” “Most of my life was spent in the sighted world,” he explained. “I had never had a lot of contact with other blind people, to be honest with you. . . I was always kind of out there and fending for myself as far as trying to figure things out. . . I never had any examples of people who didn’t have much or any vision . . . so I always had to kind of blaze my own trail.” Steve had spent virtually all of his adult life employed in the music industry. He worked at and owned music stores, sold musical instruments, and did live sound. When Darren approached him about the VOICE program, however, he had been unemployed for a period of time and needed to find a new direction that would still enable him to take advantage of his skills and interests. VOICE filled the bill very nicely.

“I really did enjoy the program,” Steve enthused. “It’s a great setup. There’s some great equipment to work with here at LAB. Probably the biggest thing I learned was having to listen to and actually edit my own voice on tape. I learned a lot about the way I really spoke as opposed to what I thought in my head, and it was an eye-opening experience. . . I did learn a lot about my articulation and the way that I spoke. It was great to learn how to do reach-outs for interviews, to write interview questions and set that whole thing up as well.” Because of his prior interest and expertise, Steve particularly enjoyed the technological aspects of the training. Specifically, all of the post-production editing, program assembly, finding just the right music, and watching it morph into a polished program were highlights for Steve.

Capitalizing on his prior strengths was only a part of what he gained. In addition, Steve accumulated a great deal of knowledge about adaptive software, including the MAGIC and JAWS programs that provide screen magnification and speech respectively for the computers used in the program. Upon successfully graduating, Steve walked away not only with these new and enhanced skills, but also with a recent, concrete accomplishment to place on his resume. “Steve’s experience is really what we had hoped for when we were putting this program together,” Elizabeth concluded.

To discuss VOICE in more depth, the Horizons program that day also featured two other people who have proven to be integral to its growth. Jay Rufo heads up the VOICE program in Boston and is the primary instructor at MCB. Katie Crocker was one of the original program participants in the 2010 charter class and is now a co-instructor with Jay, as well as a production assistant at TIC in Marshfield, MA.

Like Steve Bears, Jay came to VOICE after many years of experience as a musician and music lover. As a member of various bands, he had interviews with several college radio stations over the years. “I never really had any thoughts about the interviewer,” he added. His professional evolution was gradual. He started his radio career in 2005 as the Outreach and Development Coordinator at the Worcester affiliate of TIC, but it wasn’t long before he began to feel pulled toward the production and interviewing that went on at the station. After expressing his interest to his supervisor, he was given the chance to host a program called Out of Sight. “I white-knuckled my way through that, I was sweating,” he confessed. “I got out of the studio and realized that was the coolest thing I had ever done and I wanted to dedicate my time to learning how to be the best I could be at interviewing and learning how to use all of the equipment.” Thus began a career trajectory that led, four years later, to Jay’s accepting the position as head trainer for VOICE.

Although it originally consisted of twelve weeks of instruction, VOICE is now a full sixteen weeks long, Monday through Thursday from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. The overall goal of the class is to assist students in enhancing communications skills that are ultimately transferrable across many occupations and jobs. During the four-month class, students get a comprehensive overview of radio broadcasting: how to book guests, research program topics, conduct interviews in a professional manner, how to edit those interviews and form them into a final, polished product that is then aired on TIC. “We’re really using radio broadcasting as a vehicle to hone in on those communications skills that people can use in jobs like public relations, advertising, marketing and radio broadcasting or webcasting,” Jay summarized.

What does it take to be considered as a candidate for the VOICE program? You must be able to type. In addition, you should have good computer skills, particularly in the use of programs such as Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer, since you will be conducting a good deal of research online about show topics. You need to be an independent traveler with the mobility skills to successfully navigate to and from the training site on your own. Finally, you should have a vocational goal that is based in the communications field.

When Katie Crocker heard about VOICE and the qualifications for the program, she decided that it fit her skill set and goals quite nicely. She was one of the original four students to be accepted, and she found the diversity of her classmates to be both interesting and exciting. Some, like Katie herself, were fresh out of college; others had more life experience. “It was a lot of fun to kind of get to know everybody else, get to know the office environment here at MCB, meet some of the other people that work here, have that office experience,” Katie elaborated. “I had always been interested in communications. Radio, on the other hand, I didn’t know too much about. Well, by day two or three, I was completely sold that radio was a lot of fun.” As her knowledge and skills grew, she became especially fond of doing live radio. Just knowing that her words were going over the air at that very moment was a thrill. Another highlight of her new career was conducting a brief meet and greet interview with Governor Patrick himself.

“The one thing I will say is this course has done wonders for my confidence,” Katie concluded. Expanding her skills while challenging herself has enabled her to make huge strides, both in her confidence in her own abilities and in her professionalism. She loves being part of a dynamic course that is continuing to evolve and improve with each passing graduating class. “I don’t know who learns more: the people who come through this program or me,” Jay added, “but I’ll tell you, it’s great!”

If you want to learn more about the VOICE program and think you might like to join our next class, contact your MCB Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. We hope to start a new class of two students in March or April.

Suzanne Wilson

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