Tim McIsaac sitting in a chair with his guide dog, Jerry, sitting in front

Intro: Tim McIsaac affectionately calls his career his serendipitous dream job. This Canadian CareerConnect Mentor is proud of the fact that he functions well in a challenging work environment. To the best of his knowledge, there are no other workers with vision loss doing the job he does. Could something like this be your dream job too?

The Story: I am employed by the government of Manitoba, which is a provincial government in Canada, equivalent to that of a state government in the United States. My job is with Science Innovation Business Development, which is a branch of the Innovation Energy and Mines Department, where I am a Business Development Associate.

I provide support and assistance to project managers who are responsible for assisting companies developing their businesses and where innovation is prevalent from among three sectors. The three areas my colleagues and I focus on are Life Sciences, Digital Media, Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The focus of my attention is mainly on the ICT and digital media with a little international business development thrown in.

Some may ask, “What is a typical day on the job like for you?” The truth is there really aren’t any typical days. Often I can plan my day and it goes according to plan. But sometimes things can change in the blink of an eye and we all have to put one thing aside to rise to something else in a hurry.

There are a number of activities I engage in on a daily basis as long as things don’t change in a moment’s notice. One of the more routine activities is a lot of writing. A variety of documents must be prepared including treasury board submissions, briefing notes, correspondence etc. There are also lots of meetings both inside and outside the office with companies, industry associations, other government departments and internal staff meetings.

The people I work with could not be more wonderful. They are great at giving me samples of work to look at so that I can try things and learn by and from the experience. It is a totally supportive environment. As far as I know, this is not a job that I think would be considered to be a “tried and true” career choice for a blind person. Yet the people I work with are living proof that the work environment is important and with the right supports those of us with visual impairments can do almost anything. I think the thing I appreciate most about my colleagues, whether they are co-workers or supervisors, is how they “get it” when I have to say that I don’t know whether I can do something because I’ve never had to do “such and such” a task using assistive technology. They know I learn best by doing and are comfortable letting me work out the problem however is best for me. They are also comfortable if I need to ask for assistance with anything. Above all else — and this is not usually the norm — the people I work with often believe in me more than I believe in myself. Now, that is real motivation not to fail.

It’s hard to think that just a year ago, I was coming to the end of a two year internship; I think I had three weeks left. I was invited to a meeting to judge entries for some awards that one of the professional development organizations within the Manitoba civil service give out every year.

The Deputy Minister (kind of like a senior vice president) apparently liked some of the things I had to say, and emailed me the next day to send me some material for some things he was working on because he thought I would find them interesting. He said they had some exciting things going on in his department, suggested we talk, and told me to contact his assistant to make an appointment to see him. I did, and had the forethought to send my resume on ahead for him to look at before our meeting.

When I got there the following week, I expected him to have some ideas and to suggest that he would set up some informational interviews with some of his managers. To my surprise, he offered me my current job! Clearly, a good public presentation pays off. You never know who is watching so always be prepared and ready to put your best foot forward.

It’s uncanny how in the course of a day, I rely on the skills and experience I’ve acquired from jobs I’ve had before I got this one. I have done counseling, sales and service, human resource management, research and analysis, and probably a few others I can’t think of right now. Never under estimate how something that seems unrelated or insignificant can come back to you and help in a big way. And you just never know when that’s going to happen to you the same as it happened for me.

I always joke with my co-workers that I’m like a turtle because essentially my lap top is my office and can go anywhere with me just like a turtle carries its house on its back. With my “laptop office” I use both JAWS and Window-eyes because, for reasons I’ll probably never understand, one seems to work better than the other in certain situations. I also use Kurzweil 1000 and have a Braille display and a pac mate I use for note taking in meetings especially when I’m out of my office. I’ve also been provided with an accessible RSA token (a device that enables access to a VPN network remotely over the internet) so I can work remotely from anywhere using WiFi. And most recently I acquired a blackberry with the screen reading software which Research in Motion (RIM) took over from Code factory.

In terms of low tech, I’ve learned with the help of my boss to maintain a robust to do list as a way of trying to stay organized. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about the tremendous level of comfort the people here have whenever we discover gaps in my knowledge base around things sighted workers probably take for granted.

I have a taxi account which I use for transportation when I have to get somewhere on my own. And I’m permitted to use it if I have to travel from my home to an offsite work location, or from an offsite location back home.

However, my most important and beloved “mode of transportation” is my trusty guide dog, Jerry. I obtained Jerry from the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind and we make a good team. We travel well together and enjoy being on our own when possible.

Ironic as it may seem, the thing I most like about my job is also what I like least and that is the variety and unpredictability. Although I like this aspect of my work, it also causes me considerable anxiety sometimes. As much as I dislike admitting this, due to some really unpleasant work situations I was in years back my self esteem and confidence were badly marred. So sometimes, even after all this time, I get anxious if things get too crazy because I’m afraid to make mistakes. I fear making more work for other people. In the past if that happened, there would often be feelings of anger or frustration directed toward me. But now I am much more secure when, with the help and support of my colleagues, I manage to get through another stressful situation successfully.

To do this kind of work one needs to like and be good at a number of different skills and be able to combine them with each other. Being really organized in order to stay on top of the work and be pro-active is a must. This work requires a genuine like for people and working with the public as well as writing, analyzing, persuading and convincing, and organizing things down to the minutest detail. Then when someone in a position to insist on change does so and something totally different has to be put together at the last minute, you just do it. You cannot be bothered by this. You must be clear headed with nerves of steel to do well.

Essentially the job is figuring out how to give people what they want and need with little or no direction from the people furthest away from you whose opinions matter the most. It’s a good idea to look upon doing this as a challenge within itself and defining your success from the feedback you get from others, usually the people closest to you. Seeing if you can do what’s needed especially when the task is complex and needs to be broken down into manageable parts is a vigorous accomplishment in itself. Because you know you can do the work, pulling it off even when you use a screen reader, or are about to take on a task you’ve never done before is a big rush and will leave you feeling rewarded with a valid sense of true accomplishment and success. It’s a great feeling!

The Contact: Tim McIsaac