Looking Past the Screen: An Interview with Rhea Guntalilib
Freelancers from different background, skills and passion are becoming even more popular in the country. Various communities aiming to spread online entrepreneurial awareness serves as one of the encouragement on our endeavours.
Aside from the fact that some, if not most freelancers get to pursue their passions heeding the call of the virtual universe, online jobs have also served convenience and comfort from the downside of corporate setting; taking commute as an example. This is not a rant post however, but a very special one as inspired by a fellow freelancer we stumbled across from a freelancing community.
Rhea Althea Guntalilib was employed as a Software Development Analyst, before she discovered freelancing. She experienced both the ups and downs of working on a 9-5 job (yes, including commute), but in a much different perspective: she has been blind. The online industry has served as an avenue for her to advance in her career in spite of the challenges.
We were privileged to have her interviewed, so without further ado, we’re hoping that her story will amaze you.
I’ve known about the online industry way back before when I was still in college. In fact, it has been one of my primary goals after graduation – to be an online worker mainly because of the convenience it brings especially with my condition. However, God probably had other plans when I graduated because right after college, I was blessed to be hired as a Software Development Analyst in one of the Telco giants here in the country.
I had my own fair-share of ups and downs in working alongside sighted colleagues. For one, I definitely learned a lot, but on the flipside, I also experienced frustrating and depressing difficulties because of my blindness. There goes the dilemma of daily commute from Quezon City to Makati; wherein I lay my safety on the line every single day since I ride the MRT to and from work. Above all, and probably my biggest reason for wanting to work online is I feel like I’m being deprived of the career growth that I deeply thirst. The main struggle that I faced is the software compatibility issues that I had between the screen reading tool for the blind that I am using versus the tools that we use in the office. I felt like I can’t maximize my potentials; I can’t be productive because of these barriers. Add up to it is the fact that I can’t acquire trainings because some of the partner vendors don’t want to accommodate me because of my situation.
It was a very dark and depressing point in my career. I felt so useless, so worthless. I strived despite of my condition because I never wanted to feel these things, but everything that I’ve worked hard not to feel, it all came crashing down to me that time. The only consolation I have was the fact that my colleagues are kind and considerate people. It has always just been the tools, but never had I encountered problems with the attitude of my workmates.
Out of desperation, and due to my raging desire for career growth, I exhausted all my resources and all my options. I resorted back to the online industry. I thought to myself, I can look for other opportunities online wherein I can truly exercise my skills and maximize my potentials.
Because of all the software problems that I experienced firsthand, I vowed to devote myself advocating for digital accessibility. While I’m actively hunting for online opportunities, I also delved deeper into the world of web accessibility not knowing that in this very same field, I can find the opportunity that I’ve been looking for.
It was on November of 2015 that I met the CEO of this Canadian IT company that I am working for. There were no promises of employment, just a one-time opportunity to participate in one of their usability testing for American Airlines. God has been so good that the supposedly one-time participation ended up with an employment contract. Lady luck has indeed graced me with the job opportunity that I’ve been seeking.
On May 2016, I finally joined their team as one of their Accessibility Testers. I get the chance to work with highly respected companies such as JetBlue Airways, Cathay Pacific Airline, Vail Resorts, Academy Sporting goods and many more. Apart from the employment opportunity, I get the chance to promote my advocacy for digital accessibility all at the same time. I’m earning, and at the same time, I get this chance to be of help to my fellow people with disabilities through promoting digital accessibility.
Now, I am nearly on my 6th month on the virtual workforce, and I don’t intend to stop anytime soon. In fact, I’m currently expanding all my other skills to gain more opportunities in the online industry.
2. How do you manage to do your tasks in spite of the your physical challenges? Any tools that you find useful?
In terms of accomplishing my tasks, when we talk about tools or programs, I mainly use an assistive tool called screen reader. This is a text-to-speech software that enables blind people to gain access to computers and the internet. These tools are installed in a regular computer, with regular keyboards. I use both Job Access With Speech (JAWS) and Non-Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen readers. Furthermore, these screen readers make it possible for me to access basic MS Office applications, Google Apps, email, social media, etc.
In my current online work, we have this application called JIRA wherein we use that to track tasks. I also use a tool called Harvest in logging my work hours. Lastly, for team communication, we use Slack or Google Hangout. I’m able to use all these tools because they are usable and accessible to my screen readers.
Now, in terms of accomplishing my tasks on a skill level, of course there’s that constant research. If I’m given a particular task, I try my best to read materials that could help me improve the quality of my outputs.
3. Have you had any experience being discriminated in your job because of your disability? Can you share it with us?
Yes, but discrimination in a sense that I’m deprived of the career growth that I wanted. As I mentioned above, I wasn’t able to acquire trainings, thus affects my career movement. I’m beyond thankful that this has been the worst experience I had in my job. As I mentioned, my colleagues are all well-oriented with my disability. There had always been a mutual respect when it comes to my condition, and probably, one factor is I am not very sensitive when it comes to my disability that’s why I don’t easily get offended.
In the online world, the discrimination that I experienced is that several (not all) employers would no longer respond to my application once they find out that I am visually impaired. The apprehension is perfectly understandable, but sometimes, it’s very disheartening that they don’t even have the courtesy to respond after I let them know of my condition.
4. What would you want the employers to realize with regards to opening the opportunities to PWDs?
I want to break the stereotype that PWDs are always equated with the term “special treatment”. I won’t deny that there are definitely adjustments once a PWD employee is hired. However, these adjustments are usually just reasonable accommodations, and not exemptions or special treatments.
Yes, we have our limitations, but if given the right opportunity, there are also several workarounds when it comes to breaking those barriers. After all, at the end of the day, I believe that the process of accomplishing a task is important, but I guess, the output or the deliverable is more important. I think it would always boil down to providing good quality of work.
Also, I want to believe that loyalty and resourcefulness is one of the strongest qualities of PWD employees. We are well aware of the fact that employment opportunities don’t always knock for us. So once we’re given the chance, we ensure to always give our best shot. We intend to stick with the companies we work with because we know that finding new opportunities is not easy. Above all, we deeply value each and every opportunity given to us, so in return, we pay it back with dedication and hard work.
5. Any words of encouragement to others in the same position as yours?
This is so cliché in so many levels, but very much true in every aspect – never ever give up. A quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, “the secret of life though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times”. This is not easy, and can be very frustrating, but as long as you keep on trying, hope is always in the horizon.
I also believe that any burden is an opportunity in disguise. You simply have to figure out how to transform you’re trials into triumphs. Constantly examine yourself and discover your passion. Once you figure it out, keep on improving yourself to be the best in that field.
A disability is not a condition; you only become disabled once you allow yourself to be unproductive. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be successful the first shot, or even the second and third, but the fact that you’re constantly trying means you’re on the road to productivity.
6. What do you do for fun?
I’m a book junkie. I read when the opportunity presents. I’m more of a fiction-type of reader. I also love watching movies (ironic as it may sound). Usually, they would describe the unspoken scenes in the movie or if I’m alone, I download movies for the blind; the ones with audio descriptions.
I’m also blessed that my friends way back in college when I was still sighted are still around. We still go out every now and then. And of course, I also spend time with my friends who are also blind. If it’s not possible in person, I always catch up with them over the phone.
Also, I love trying out new foods. This is usually my bonding time with my family. We go out to try out new foods, and since we’re a family of musically inclined people, we normally bond over karaoke or I just chill with my brother as we both play the guitar and sing.
It’s not everyday that we meet people with such inspiring story as Rhea’s. May we be reminded that in this digital age, our opportunities are close to limitless. Our accomplishments are dependent on how we perceive our position and situation, and the results depend on how much we work for it.