Including special needs

Applying a Brazilian model to improve Israeli lives, making the workplace and world more accessible.

Dr. Virginia Chalegre (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Virginia Chalegre
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Virginia Chalegre is on a mission of the best humane kind. The Brazilian software specialist is looking to offer members of society who are frequently viewed as social welfare cases a better and more independent standard of life.
“In Brazil we are doing projects that change the lives of people,” she declares.
That’s not a bad credo to follow.
We met up in Jerusalem a day after Chalegre enlightened attendees of the AISTO software testing conference, which took place at the Shamoon College of Engineering in Beersheba, about her work in Brazil. The “people” to whom Chalegre refers are visually and hearing impaired, and the SCE is looking to establish similar training facilities of its own in the coming year as part of its social commitment agenda.
“At my company, T-Access, we work with software testing related to accessibility,” Chalegre explains.
“We do projects to see if software is functional, and we look at accessibility and evaluation of accessibility for people.”
That in itself sounds fine, but Chalegre and her cohorts are looking to benefit everyone, not just people with special needs.
“We do evaluation of software testing for people with and without disabilities,” she says, making quotation signs with her fingers when uttering the last word, the inference of which was to become clear later in our conversation.
“We do projects training people with disabilities,” she adds.
This seed of her idea, Chalegre observes, was planted by a law in Brazil that requires companies with at least 100 employees to take on workers with special needs.
“We have projects with blind people, deaf people and people with intellectual disabilities. The goal of the project is to give training on software testing to these people. We want to give them the possibilities to work at hi-tech companies.”
T-Access, says Chalegre, fills an acute gap between theory and facts on the ground.
“There is the law, but there are not many people with this knowledge [of how to train people with disabilities],” she notes, adding that there is a great need for proactive initiatives to enable the disabled to break into the job market. “They lack opportunities to study and work.”
That, of course, has wide-ranging socioeconomic and psychological repercussions.
“They are poor and they have less self-respect. People with disabilities gravitate to certain types [of work] where they don’t have to think much. The problem is cultural, and I think it happens in other countries, too. From conversations I have had, I think it happens here, too.”
Chalegre wants to change the general mind-set on the potential of people who are perceived to be too challenged to take on “normal” jobs, and even to enable them to entertain the possibility of following a professional continuum.
We are talking about a mammoth sector of the population. “In Brazil 45 million people have disabilities out of a total population of 190 million – that’s 23 percent,” she says, adding that the situation is similar here.
“I saw research that said there are a million people of work age, in Israel [with disabilities]; out of a population of eight to nine million, that’s a lot.”
According to data collected by Myers/Brookdale/ JDC Institute, published in 2014, 50% of people with special needs in Israel are employed, compared with 72% of people without disabilities. The statistics also indicate that, on average, people with special needs earn around NIS 1,400 less a month than the latter group, and that 61% of disabled people are not satisfied with their income; the figure for people without disabilities is 41%.
Moreover, 54% of working people with special needs state they are unable to cover their monthly expenses, compared with 36% of the other group.
Almost a quarter (22%) of people with special needs say they would like to work, but are unable to find employment, and only 5.4% of employers say they would be willing to employ disabled people.
THE SCE initiative thus seems logical, especially considering the market-leading position Israel enjoys in numerous areas of the global hi-tech industry.
Chalegre got the inspiration to widen the employment horizons of people with special needs a few years back. “I was studying for my master’s, in software testing. It is a very theoretical subject. I don’t like theory too much, because I am a practical person.”
She had been working in Barcelona for a while and returned to Brazil to take her academic qualifications a step further. She also had a daytime job.
“At the company I was with at that time I had to be with blind people sometimes. I had no idea how I could do the work with them. My boss just said ‘do it next week, and do a good job.’” That’s easier said than done, but Chalegre rolled up and her sleeves and dug into the task. “I started to do research in this area,” she says.
“I really didn’t know anything about it.”
The Brazilian master’s degree student soon got a rude awakening.
“When I went to the first meeting with blind people at a big company, I was really surprised that they could work so well, and could do many things that I couldn’t imagine before.” It turned out to be a life-changing encounter for Chalegre.
She contacted her supervisor at the university and informed him she was changing her thesis tack. “I told him I had found my area, and I threw away a whole year of research,” she recalls.
“I started to try to find the best way to do software testing for these people. After I finished my master’s, I published a book about accessibility testing, and I started my company.”
That was in 2011. Initially, the company did not home in on the needs of the visually impaired.
“We looked at software for people with disabilities and without disabilities,” Chalegre continues, adding that the latter is something of a misnomer.
“Everybody has some kind of disability. You know, if there are people talking in Hebrew next to me I am totally disabled. I can’t understand anything they are saying.”
It’s not just language barriers that Chalegre says can impair her ability to function. So-called disabled people can leave her and other able-bodied people in their wake.
“Blind people using screen reader [software] can access the content with a keyboard and hearing. They listen to these tools much faster than me. It’s impossible for me to understand the information so quickly. At that time, I realized I am the disabled person.”
It dawned on Chalegre that there was a valuable employment resource just waiting to be pointed in the right direction. It also made her keenly aware of the wider range of faculties that the able-bodied may take for granted and, hence, do not fully utilize.
“I think, for example, that having sight can dull other things, such as the sense of touch and the sense of hearing.”
Chalegre says that progress is being made in Brazil, but that there is still a long way to go to make the public aware of the needs of people with disabilities.
“We see, for example, that deaf people go to meetings at companies and they can only read the notes [minutes] at the end,” says Chalegre. “They don’t have someone there doing sign language during the meeting.” There doesn’t seem to be much point in going to a meeting if you can’t follow the proceedings; you might as well just wait for the minutes to be sent by email. That, of course, precludes hearing- impaired employees from actively participating and contributing to the discussions and the way the company evolves.
Chalegre feels that it is a thorny issue that needs to be addressed across the world.
“We think and talk about it in Brazil, and I have come to talk about it here, too. I have meetings with people in Tel Aviv to look at how to integrate people with disabilities into companies and to sustain that integration.”
It is a matter that also needs to be dealt with inside and outside the meeting room.
“There are, for example, people who don’t know how to talk to blind people,” the Brazilian continues. “When blind people come to a meeting they want to know how many people are there, how many chairs there are, and about seating. These are things that people who can see don’t think about. Blind people want to have the right to make choices – including simple things like where they are going to sit in a room.”
Chalegre says it is a general malaise.
“Once, I went to a restaurant with a blind friend. The waiter came to me and asked me what my friend wants to eat. I told him to ask my friend. I said, ‘He is blind, not deaf.’ That happens all the time.”
She says that she has already started working with an Israeli colleague – Esther Zabar of the AQA center, which provides work training for people on the autism spectrum – about incorporating people with special needs in workplaces, including those with Asperger syndrome, and is looking for Israeli companies and organizations that are interested in giving special-needs persons a fair chance.
“My aim is to make the world more accessible. I want to go around the world and show people without disabilities that it is totally possible to integrate people with disabilities into companies,” Chalegre declares.
“I told students of mine who don’t have disabilities about what people with disabilities can do and they said: ‘We don’t believe it.’ People have preconceptions, and I want to change that.”
It was an eye-opening experience spending an hour or two with Dr. Chalegre. Before we parted we exchanged business cards. Hers had all the requisite details and was smartly aesthetic, but I noted it felt strange.
“That’s braille,” she said.