Agencies host disabled interns

College students with disabilities are finding new opportunities at a number of federal agencies as information technology interns.

Microsoft Corp. is funding a $325,000 program, coordinated by the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). The interns must maintain high grades and have career ambitions in the IT field.

They began working earlier this month at agencies including the Federal Aviation Administration, the Labor and Justice departments, and the Social Security Administration.

The interns are helping complete important work while building professional relationships, according to David Knorr, manager of performance metrics for the FAA's Free Flight program. Long a proponent of internship programs, he requested Arun Sankaran, 22, through AAPD's program. Sankaran, a rising senior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who has cerebral palsy, is an economics and computer science double major.

"I had a couple of resumes that were passed through, and I heard about this program through Microsoft," Knorr said. "When I saw the background of Arun, I thought that was a perfect fit. Arun was one of the most sought-after in the whole program. I feel fortunate that he chose us."

Free Flight is developing software to improve air traffic flow. "My job is to measure [whether we] are making a real difference," Knorr said.

Eight airports are using the software tools now. One of Sankaran's tasks is to comb those airports' databases and find out how the software tools have performed under varying conditions.

He is also evaluating other airports that might be suitable sites for future implementations. "That's where [Sankaran's] economics background comes in. There are cost/benefit analyses," Knorr said.

Sankaran's ability to find the right data in databases and analyze it intelligently is one of the intern's strengths, Knorr added.

"There's a lot of data out there, a lot of need for analysis," he said. "Things change, and there's always a need for new recommendations. And there needs to be data behind those decisions. You need the folks who can harness that data, not just with database skills but analytical skills."

Sankaran said his disability has not restrained him in his academic life. The disease causes mobility problems, but he said they don't keep him from completing his work.

Meanwhile, he is beginning to feel at home at the FAA. "I'm learning a lot, especially about aerospace. I'm getting a great chance to use my database skills," he said. "I'm already learning stuff that I didn't know when I came in."

AAPD offers many other internship programs. The most recent one was started at Microsoft's suggestion, said Mariana Nork, the association's senior vice president of communications and development.

"AAPD has a very strong leadership and career development area," she said. "The purposes are to ensure we can move people with disabilities out of the unemployment ranks. Microsoft is very strong philanthropically."

The two entities decided that basing the program in Washington, D.C., and placing the students in federal agencies would give them exposure to federal policies and their effect on government operations.

Nork said 10 students are taking part in the program this year, and Microsoft has agreed to provide funding for 15 participants next year.

"College students who are poised on the brinks of their careers are not often steered by their counselors into IT jobs," said Sarah Meyer, the company's senior program manager for community affairs.

She said initial interest in the program seems strong. Not only were there more interested applicants than the program could accommodate, but agencies also offered more internships.

"The company has a long-term commitment to supporting hardware and software that's fully accessible," Meyer said. "Our work on the philanthropic side came from a collaboration between accessibility and community affairs."

Federal agencies, like private firms, sometimes find bright, new talent among interns, Knorr said. "We've had maybe a dozen [interns] in the past four years, and we've actually hired three," he said.

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