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Dan Kelly was born with a degenerative eye disease. By the age of eight, he could see only large print and colours. By the age of 13, he was only able to detect light and darkness.

But Mr Kelly’s disability has not been a hindrance to his career. On the contrary; after starting out in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as a recruiter, he was recently promoted to a new job at the National Industries for the Blind, a non-profit group in Alexandria, Virginia, that promotes economic independence for blind people. He says he owes his success to his education.

Mr Kelly is one of 28 alumni of last year’s inaugural management training course, sponsored by NIB in collaboration with the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

The 15-month Darden programme is specifically tailored to blind or seeing-impaired students.

“On a personal level, the Darden programme gave me a network of outstanding performers,” says Mr Kelly, who also recently completed an MBA from George Mason University. “On a professional level, it gave me the ability to frame a situation, ask probing questions and make big decisions.”

The Darden programme was started in 1994 as a way to help combat the high unemployment rate among people who are blind. The US unemployment rate is less than 5 per cent but the national unemployment rate for people who are blind is 70 per cent, according to NIB statistics.

Jim Gibbons, chief executive of NIB, who lost his sight when he was a student at university, says the programme is also a way to enhance the talent pool at NIB. The group has 135 employees, of whom 25 per cent are blind; it also has 85 associated agencies that employ 6,000 blind workers. Only employees of NIB or the affiliated agencies are recruited to the programme.

“When I became president of NIB in 1998, I noticed that none of the leaders at our enterprise agencies were blind – we weren’t building a pipeline of talent,” says Mr Gibbons, the first blind student to get his MBA from Harvard Business School.

He says the initial concept of the programme was an MBA boot camp that would “create a venue to enhance talent. I predict that with­in the next dozen years, 50 per cent of our agencies will have heads who are blind – and that will be mainly due to this programme and other training programmes like it,” says Mr Gibbons.

The Darden programme, which started again last month with its second intake of students, comprises five one-week sessions that take place at Darden’s campus. The courses, which are taught mainly by the case-study method, cover standard MBA topics such as finance, accounting, operations, leadership and communications. Students also participate in an ongoing consulting project.

“This was not dumbed-down stuff – we taught at the MBA level,” says Tom Cross, a senior director of executive education at Darden and a co-designer of the programme. “We were preparing each of them to be the CEO of a small business.”

Still, Mr Cross admits that prior to the programme he had preconceived notions about people who are blind. “My exposure to blind people had been very minimal in my life. My instinct was almost to feel sorry for them,” he says. “But as I met more seeing-impaired people through this programme, I was amazed at their capability and their focus. They want to be treated the same as sighted people.”

Mr Gibbons of NIB says before the programme he gave a training session to Mr Cross and other teachers at Darden on how to teach to blind students. “It took me about two minutes,” he says. “I told them: ‘Be demanding, expect great things and make sure the course material is accessible’.”

In order to accommodate the blind students, Darden made some adjustments to its technology. For instance, the school put its course work on a website so that students could either print out materials in Braille or download them on to devices that had voice-output computer readers.

For the most part the teaching stayed the same, says Mr Cross. “Based on NIB guidance, we taught cases the same way we teach other MBA-type classes. They told us that it was OK to use the whiteboard and to show videos or PowerPoints if that’s what we typically do,” he says. “We just had to learn to articulate whatever we were writing on the whiteboard or what was appearing on the screen.”

Sharon Giovinazzo, who lost her eyesight through multiple sclerosis at the age of 31, has remodelled her life since graduating from the programme. Five years ago she was sewing linen at the Central Association for the Blind in Utica, New York State; now she works as a public policy and consumer relations associate there.

Ms Giovinazzo says the course both improved her business knowhow and raised her aspirations: “The programme has really translated into upward mobility for me,” she says. “I know that I can walk into any business and look at some very basic business documents and immediately evaluate in a logical and sensible manner the health of that company.”

She recently visited legislators on Capitol Hill to advocate the Darden-NIB programme as a national model for people with disabilities of all types.

“It used to be that employers would think: ‘You’re blind, what can you do?’,” she says. “But what I learnt at Darden, I can pack up and use anywhere.”

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