PenguinRandomHouse | Munich, 11/06/2017

Disabled Access in the Workplace - An internship at Goldman

Keyboard on the right, braille display on the left – Alexander Karl at his workstation at Goldmann

Subject: Employees
Country: Germany
Category: Project

Alexander Karl is blind – but nevertheless completed a six-week internship in the press office of the publisher Goldmann. A special experience for him as well as for the employees in the publishing house.

“Between the parked cars, then straight ahead for a while as best as you can. At some point, there are rough cobblestones – from now on carry on a bit more attentively, go closer to the wall. After a few houses, a few twigs protrude far out into the sidewalk at head height, behind them are parked motorcycles. And if I now carry on swinging the cane carefully, I first notice a narrow, then a much wider gutter – voilà, here’s the entrance!” When Alexander Karl describes his daily route to work at Neumarkter Strasse 28, it sounds a bit different from that of his Munich colleagues from Random House. Most of them probably don’t even notice when the sidewalk turns into a cobblestone path, and how wide the gutters at the edge of the road are. But for Alexander Karl, who completed a six-week internship at Goldmann Verlag from mid-September to the end of October, these details are all-important. For Alexander is blind.

‘A Blind Man in a Book Publishing House – How’s That Going to Work?’

It’s a question that many people are bound to ask when they hear about Alexander's story. Yet Claudia Hanssen, Head of Press and Public Relations at Goldmann Verlag, and her team didn’t think about it for long. “When we received Alexander's application, we discussed it for maybe three minutes and immediately agreed that it was going to work,” she recalls. Of course, she and her colleagues, Susanne Grünbeck, Deputy Head of Press at Goldmann, and Katrin Cinque, Senior Press Officer and Social Media Manager, were aware that a blind trainee would change their own way of working and mean a certain amount of extra work. “But we want to give people a chance and we were also sure that we could also learn a lot from the new situation, so it was a win-win situation,” says Hanssen.

Alexander Karl, who is from Landshut in the south of Germany, confirms this. His colleagues’ open-minded attitude impressed him from the start, he says. It was by no means a given that a company would be able to offer an internship to the blind online editor. Alexander’s vision was severely impaired from birth by cataracts, but he remained partially sighted for a long time. While his right eye went blind in childhood, the vision in his left eye remained intact until into his late twenties. Four years ago, however, it suddenly deteriorated in several sharp drops. The first time this happened, Alexander tried to conceal it from the people around him as much as possible, especially his mother, as he did not want to worry her. “But I couldn’t hide the second bout of deterioration. I woke up one morning and couldn’t see a thing,” says Alexander. Of course, it was a shock at first, “But life goes on. It sounds pat, but that’s how it is.” Not the type of person who easily lets life bring him down, Alexander quickly learned, with the help of a trainer, how to cope with everyday life without sight. Today his left eye can still discern bright lights or very strong contrasts, but that’s all.

Continuing Training to Become an Online Editor

Today, Alexander says blindness has actually benefited his career development, despite all the difficulties and worries, because the training in administrative services that he had completed up to then was primarily a rational solution many relatives had advised him to do. So, he was not at all sorry when he had to quit the training because of his blindness, Alexander says with a faint smile. After this he spent a year in “basic blind rehab” at the Berufsförderungswerk vocational training institute in Würzburg, where he learned both Braille and how to work on a computer with certain support programs. “Fortunately, I learned to touch-type before I lost my sight. That would have been difficult otherwise,” he says.

After completion of basic rehabilitation, Alexander came upon an offer from the Dr. Hooffacker Journalism Academy in Munich that aroused his interest and offered him much more than his previous administrative training. In cooperation with the Foundation for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons, the academy offers an advanced cross-media online editor training course specifically for the blind and visually impaired. During the six-month course, Alexander learned everything about the profession, including how to write journalistic texts and press releases, strategically post on social media channels, and edit an audio podcast. After the course, Karl then entered a six-month practical phase, which finally led him to the Goldmann Verlag press office after an internship at the Bayerischer Rundfunk online editorial team.

Disabled Access in the Workplace

During his internship in Claudia Hanssen’s team, Alexander performed the same tasks as previous trainees at Goldmann, including press mail-outs, proofreading and supporting the Facebook site. “One of my first tasks at Goldmann was the big holiday season mail-out. It was great fun, and I learned a lot about marketing,” says Alexander. In order to be able to work on the PC, a screen reader program that he knew from basic rehab was installed on his laptop. The program converted the data displayed on the screen in such a way that Karl could “read” it - either by voice output or via a braille display that was also connected to the laptop. Alexander used keyboard shortcuts on his mouse that enabled him to quickly operate the programs and applications on the PC.

His favorite tasks included proofreading, because here he realized he even had a clear advantage by using the voice output: “Because I have the texts read out loud, I quickly recognize small mistakes that are easily overlooked when skimming. You can immediately hear when letters have been transposed,” he explains. Alexander also wrote a blog-like series in which he reported on his experiences as a blind intern at Goldmann Verlag  for the publisher’s Facebook page.

‘A 'Normal' Will Have no Worries’

For Alexander Karl as well as Claudia Hanssen, Katrin Cinque and Susanne Grünbeck at Goldmann Verlag, this extraordinary internship was a thoroughly positive experience. “We gained a whole new perspective on our environment through Alexander,” says Claudia Hanssen. “I was especially impressed by how confidently he moved around, not only inside the building, but also out in the street, in a constantly changing environment.”

“All things considered, I can only give the company the highest praise for how well-planned and professional this internship has been from the beginning,” writes Alexander in his Facebook series. “If things work this well with a ‘special case’ like me, a 'normal' will have no worries.” As a farewell gift, he was given an extra-large load of audiobooks, because even as a blind person he is still a big book lover. There is only one thing he won’t miss about his internship, he writes in an article about his last day at work: the revolving door at the entrance of the building. “Stairs, train doors – pah! All child's play! But revolving doors are the enemy!”

Before he starts sending out job applications, he wants to take a little time for himself. The past months of training and internship were also exhausting, he says, but he hopes, of course, that it won’t be too long before he finds a job. Ultimately, he has always been an optimist, and however many crossroads he encounters or obstacles there are to overcome, Alexander Karl will find his way even without his eyesight.