This feature first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
You stand quietly scanning the hill. The air is filled with the scent of pine, and you hear the wind passing through the trees. A chipmunk, awakened from its winter slumber, darts across your line of sight.
A quick check to make sure the clasps on your boots are secure. One final adjustment of the goggles, thread your gloves through the straps on your poles, position your feet, relax your thighs — and take a big deep breath through your nose in anticipation of moving down the hill.
With a strong exhale, you lunge forward, arms simultaneously driving the poles downward into the snow and — Whoosh! — you’re on your way down.
Now imagine doing all of that blindfolded. Because that’s what William Rainey does when he hits the slopes. William, age 17, doesn’t actually cover his eyes. He doesn’t need to — because he is legally blind. William was born with several diseases of the eyes that have slowly but surely destroyed his sight.
A little-known fact is that 90 percent of legally blind people can still see shapes and colors to some degree. A person with 20/20 vision can see clearly at 20 feet what is normally visible to the human eye at 20 feet. Someone with 20/40 vision can see at 20 feet what a person with normal vision could see at 40 feet. William’s eyesight is 20/400.
So how does a legally blind teen manage to ski? He does it with the help of Envision Blind Sports (EBS), a charitable organization that supports people who are blind or visually impaired by providing them with education and opportunities to be physically active.
With the assistance of EBS, William has participated in a surprising number of physical activities, including roller skating, archery, soccer, white-water rafting, lacrosse and his favorite activity, skiing.
“I’ve downhill skied twice, at the beginner’s level, and I love it,” said William. “The adrenaline rush is so cool — I definitely want to do it again.”
Life on the family farm
Home for William is Westover, Pa, a small borough in the middle of the state. The area is one of great beauty, especially in autumn. In addition to gorgeous scenery, the locale is also home to that renowned weather prognosticating rodent, Punxsutawney Phil (the celebrity groundhog, as seen in the movie Groundhog Day).
Another interesting regional attraction is the Grice Clearfield County Museum, which looks like someone blew up the world’s largest taxidermy shop and it landed on top of the greatest collection of classic cars you have ever seen.
William lives with his parents and two sisters on a 150-acre farm outside of town. The Rainey estate is a working farm rotating corn and sorghum crops. It’s also a noisy place with 90 sheep, 22 cows, 20 chickens, two dogs, 10 cats (to keep the mice population in check), and a donkey named “Cookie.”
The Raineys raise Katahdin sheep, a breed known not for their fleece but for their tasty lamb chops. “We fatten the sheep up all year to sell,” explained William. “They’re typically sold the week before Easter and eaten that Sunday.” The Raineys' cattle are also raised for their meat.
The family dogs are Chief and Jake, and they’re tasked with keeping the flock safe — although Chief seems to prefer the company of family members and lounging around the house as opposed to chivvying sheep back and forth. “Chief likes people more than he likes sheep,” laughed William. “He just likes us to pet him.”
The true guardian of the flock is Cookie the donkey. She hangs out in the pasture with the sheep and, whenever the need arises, springs into action against varmints that dare approach too close. Cookie is good at her job and, like many beautiful females, can occasionally be somewhat moody.
“She can be a bit temperamental and just wants to be petted, but when a fox, raccoon, or porcupine approaches the sheep, she will scare them off or even fight them,” said William.
Warm beds can be tough to climb out of before sunrise, but living on a farm means no sleeping in — even for a blind guy. “We wake up at 5 or 5:30 every day to care for the animals,” said William. “Got to feed and water them, clean their pens, collect the eggs, and make sure the animals are all healthy. It’s a lot of work.”
Being responsible and well acquainted with work is an asset both on the farm and at school. After caring for the animals, William gobbles down a bowl of his favorite breakfast cereal, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and heads off to school.
His first stop each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday is Harmony High School — with a total student body of 130 individuals — where he attends an English class and another for braille. “This is my third year taking braille and I’m getting good at it,” said William. “The hardest part of learning it is remembering all the contractions — it’s a lot of stuff to remember but it’s coming along."
Harmony High is small but it’s staffed with some good people. One of them is Principal Doug Martz, who has a special connection with William. “He is one of my role models because he has helped me realize the value of a solid education. Mr. Martz believes education is important and wants everyone to succeed.”
Martz is likewise impressed with William, particularly with how he conducts himself and his behavior toward others. “It’s amazing how thoughtful William is toward his peers and how attentive he is toward his career goals. He is always kind to those around him,” said Martz.
William is skilled with computers and, according to Martz, often uses his knowledge to help out with computer issues that arise at school: “Because he is so good with technology, he often steps in to help us teachers solve our tech problems.”
After lunch on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, William heads over to the nearby Clearfield County Career and Technology Center (CCCTC) where he studies information technology (IT).
It was at CCCTC that William first heard of IT certifications and their value to employers when his IT instructor, Jerome Mick, explained how certs can help students land high-paying jobs. “Mick told the class about certifications and how they will help us in our careers. I was excited and figured I would earn some,” explained William.
Thus far, William has completed five certifications: IT Fundamentals Pro, PC Pro, and Security Pro from TestOut; and IT Fundamentals and A+ from CompTIA. He is now hard at work completing TestOut’s Network Pro and CompTIA's Network+. “I like earning certifications but I’m not sure when I’ll finish those two; probably sometime next semester,” said William.
Because of his visual impairment, William requires a number of devices to keep pace with his studies. His most common tools are a close-circuit television and special screen magnification software that enlarges words to a size that he can actually read.
He also uses TestOut’s LabSim and appreciates the new addition to the platform of the text-to-speech reader Speechify. “It makes it easier and saves me a lot of time by reading parts of the projects and problems out loud instead of me having to magnify each word,” William explained.
Putting his tech skills to work
Being proficient in technology and having completed a number of valuable certifications made William the top candidate when CCCTC advertised for a part-time service technician. Mick, along with the executive director of the technology center, recommended William for the position. As the service tech, he works approximately 23 hours a week repairing computers and keeping the servers up and running.
The funnest aspect of his job is teaching cybersecurity practice to staff by sending them phishing e-mails. “I try to trick them by sending links that look official,” William said. “If they click on the fake link, they get a message saying that they’ve been hacked and to be more careful opening suspicious e-mails. It’s a lot of fun,” he said.
When he isn’t earning certifications, fixing computers, and constructively pranking the CCCTC staff, William enjoys participating in SkillsUSA competitions. This year, William and his friend and teammate, Alex Leskovansky, won first place in their district for cybersecurity and third place at the state-level.
William somehow also finds time to serve as the parliamentarian and vice president of CCCTC’s SkillsUSA program. He is a member of the National Honor Society, the National Technical Honor Society, and the IT class treasurer, all along with earning a place on the school’s high honor roll. Talk about defying the stereotype of blind people being limited in what they can do!
Surprisingly, being highly skilled in IT and disciplined in his studies doesn’t mean things are always easy for William. Sometimes things can be downright frustrating. An example of that was his CompTIA A+ cert exams. “I really struggled,” he said. “It was exams with a large variety of topics to cover. I passed the hardware portion on the first try but failed the second exam and had to take it again to pass.”
His recipe for dealing with frustrations is both simple and effective. “I either ask for help or walk away for a time and come back to it later when my mind is clear.”
Problems with testing accommodations
The most challenging aspect of earning a certification for William isn’t the preparation. It is the process of arranging physical accommodation for his lack of sight. “Testing procedures for TestOut exams are simple since they’re taken in the classroom. I just tell Mr. Mick that I’m ready and he puts extra time on the exam clock, and I get to use my text magnification program to see the words easier,” he explained.
Non-TestOut certification exams, however, are another story. Since the CompTIA exams are administered in a testing center by personnel who have no prior knowledge or understanding of William’s physical needs, scheduling can be tedious and take months to arrange.
“I have to gather all kinds of paperwork proving I have a disability, then submit a form with my parent’s permission that I can take the test with accommodations, then schedule the exam at a center, then wait for the center to accept me, and then wait anywhere from two to four months for the center to let me know I can come sit for the exam,” William explained.
“That means I have to keep studying and always be ready since I never know when I’ll be scheduled.”
The challenges don’t end once William is finally seated at a testing center. When taking an exam, he is permitted the use of a magnification device only — no test-reading software. There have also been issues when testing center employees read the exam directions. “Some readers have strong accents that makes it hard to understand them clearly,” he said.
Moments of miscommunication have contributed to bad outcomes. “I failed the second part of the A+ exam when I took it the first time,” said William. “I also failed the CompTIA Fundamentals exam the first time around. The second time I took it the center messed up my accommodations. The CompTIA exams are a big pain in the rear!”
In spite of testing center challenges, William admits to feeling a great sense of accomplishment when he successfully completes an exam. “It’s the best part of the certification process, the feeling that all my hard work has paid off.”
The road (and slope) ahead
William will graduate this spring and his plan is to continue developing his tech skills to greater levels by attending college. “I want to go to a four-year university to get a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity,” he said. “Right now, I’m thinking Slippery Rock University over in Butler County, but I am looking at other schools, too. Whatever school fits me the best. I do think I’d prefer to be in a city.”
William knows that there is the possibility that his eye diseases will eventually take the rest of his vision. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem worried. “I’ll just deal with it and keep going,” he said. The people around William also know he’ll “keep going” regardless of what happens.
Jerome Mick describes William as “top notch” and calls him “Big Will” — not for his size, but for his toweringly positive attitude and willingness to face challenges head-on and to never give up.
“Big Will doesn’t let anything stop him, said Mick. “He takes the bull by the horns and conquers problems with great accuracy. He is always up for a challenge no matter the task and he never lets his lack of vision get in his way. With his character and work ethic, I look for him to go far in his career and in life.”
Whether it's whooshing down a ski slope or configuring a server, William has already risen above challenges that would be intimidating for many with perfect vision. I’m sure we can all agree that, when it comes to William Rainey’s future, Mick's bold prediction will be borne out.