POETA Provides Job Opportunities for People with Disabilities By John Williams Two years ago, a hemispheric program in Latin America was launched with Microsoft through its Unlimited Potential Program to introduce technology and job-training centers for marginalized persons throughout Latin America. Called POETA (Partnership in Opportunities for Employment through Technologies in the Americas) and using adaptive technologies, the job centers provide training to persons with disabilities and other marginalized populations in the use of office related software, such as Excel, Word, PowerPoint and other programs, along with job readiness skills.
POETA was created by the Trust for the Americas. The Trust for the Americas fosters partnerships among corporations, foundations, governmental bodies, and academic institutions in the Americas. The Trust's mission reflects the central goals of the Organization of American States and mobilizes resources to confront extreme poverty and to promote democracy through actions that are environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. The program provides on-site training and support to people with disabilities in the use of information technology, and it brings the private sector, governments and civil society together with the goal of creating long-term positive change throughout the region. Through a combination of Information and Communication Technologies and adaptive technologies, POETA provides persons with disabilities, who in many cases were stay at home individuals, the skills and the opportunity to apply for a job, therefore giving them independence and often improving the lives of their families.
In 2004, The Trust for the Americas, with Microsoft funds and the Unlimited Potential Program, launched a pilot program in Guatemala. Nearly 300 people with disabilities were trained. According to David Rojas, director of POETA, some of the people were hired and others started their businesses. Twenty-five local businesses were involved in the program and provided employment. As a result of the success, a total of 12 programs were launched in Argentina, Columbia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Panama. In each community, POETA has four activities: 1. Establishing centers to train people with disabilities and for the centers to serve as an after hour community center, providing Internet access and additional skills training for the larger community. 2. Job readiness and job placement training. Attendees are taught to write resumes, ho to dress and how to address issues often faced by people with disabilities in the workplace. 3. Awareness campaign that informs and educates employers on the benefits of hiring people with disabilities. 4. Job placement. The centers actively seek employment for the trainees.
Each center is equipped with a basic Assistive Technology kit that included, but is not limited to the following: trackballs, adaptive keyboards (Intellikeys), voice recognition software and JAWS (Job Accommodation with Speech). The UP Curriculum lasts approximately 118 hours. This, however, does not take into consideration the number of hours a student might spent on practice sessions and/or the program’s job readiness component, which last approximately 10 hours. This calculation also depends on the beneficiaries’ disability. For example, a blind student might take longer to complete the program’s curriculum as he or she will need to get acquainted with Jaws. The amount of technical assistance available depends on the resources available and the center’s target population. The centers target physically and mentally disabled adults and youths. POETA tries to provide those centers specializing on visual disabilities with a Braille printer, scanner and speech software. In addition, the trainers use Microsoft’s accessibility options, such as its magnifier, color contrasts, keyboard controls, on-screen keyboard and other features.
Job placement is one of the program’s biggest challenges. Unemployment rates on Latin America are high, even for people with college degrees. Unfortunately, many of the program’s beneficiaries do not have access to higher education and the information technology training they receive at the centers is sometimes not enough to get them a job. Knowing this, the program’s developers added modules such as entrepreneurship, leadership and English and literature to enhance the program’s curriculum and to increase the participants’ chances of employment. Many of the participants are hired at supermarkets, hotels, call centers and retail stores as cashiers, receptionists, administrative assistants and teachers, according to Rojas. The OAS estimates there are more than 80 million people with disabilities in all of Latin America. Many, many people in Latin America are disabled because of the civil wars and mines. The POETA network consists of 33 centers in 11 countries. Rojas says before the end of 2007, there will be 49 centers in 17 Latin American countries and the Caribbean. Being an optimist he says by the end of 2008 there will be 69 centers in 19 countries. “We also provide job placement assistance and micro-enterprise planning capacity,” said Rojas. In off-hours, the centers are used by the local community for access to the Internet and other uses. “We believe this partnership between the Trust and Microsoft will have a long lasting impact on the communities they serve and we hope to have at least one POETA center in every country in the hemisphere by 2010, said Program Coordinator Rene Leon of POETA. Other POETA donors are Chevron, Conoco Phillips, Daimler Chrysler, Empresa Eléctrica de Guatemala, Hewlett Packard, RCN, Siemens and TACA.