Taking Control: How One IT Pro Used Certifications to Live Her Best Life

At 19 years old, Shana Kassel developed a degenerative eye disease that left her with very low vision. Rather than letting this stop her from pursuing an IT career, she learned how to use the abilities she has to do what she truly loves.

A collage of three pictures of Shana: two working on hardware and one standing in front of a rainbowGrowing up Shana Kassel had perfect 20/20 vision. But, when she was 19 years old, she was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) and Cystoid Macular Edema. It was about the same time she discovered her passion for technology. Working as a personal shopper at a Best Buy in Mission Viejo, Calif., Kassel had the opportunity to work across every department and really fell in love with computers. But, her diagnosis meant she could no longer drive, and she was having a hard time viewing computer screens and printed materials.

Retinitis Pigmentosa refers to a group of diseases that cause retinal degeneration. People with RP experience a general decline in their vision because photreceptor cells in the retina degenerate. While Kassel is not completely blind, she has low vision, which makes reading small print, lots of print or verbiage on a computer screen difficult.

Following her diagnosis, Kassel tried a variety of jobs – not letting her visual impairment stop her from living her life. But, she was unable to find a job that really suited her. Not knowing where to turn, she reached out to an RP support group on Facebook and was encouraged to get in touch with her local Department of Rehabilitation – which she did.

Overcoming Her Disability

They advised Kassel to travel to the Orientation Center for the Blind in northern California, where her self-described “Jedi training” would begin. Her six-month training included everything from orientation mobility, like learning how to walk with a cane (which she has named Abel!) to reading braille, and working with computers and assistive technology.

It was also through this training that Kassel was encouraged to pursue her dream to work in technology. And that meant picking up and moving to Little Rock, Ark., where she would train at World Services for the Blind and enroll in a desktop support technician (DST) class with the goal of becoming CompTIA A+ certified.

The knowledge I learned through CompTIA A+ has absolutely applied to real life. I manage the support ticket system here, and every day, something comes in that I have to troubleshoot. My mind goes back to that A+ book, and I apply that knowledge every day.

On her first day of class, Kassel was nervous to put it mildly. But her passion to learn overcame her fear, and she persisted using a variety of methods to learn the material.

“I use a screen magnifier and screen reader when I’m on the computer,” Kassel said. “I can see the best on a computer with a black screen and white font.”

While the coursework for CompTIA A+ was very fast-paced and involved a lot of reading, she made it work by listening to the chapters instead. Her sense of touch helped her to understand hardware components.

Part of the class required students to develop a custom parts list with the intent of building their own PC. “I had some trouble when it came to inputs and outputs because they are coded by color, so I learned to recognize the parts by touch,” she said. Her efforts paid off when the class voted her list the best and actually built her custom PC.

Putting Her Certification to Work

A short three and a half months after beginning the class, Kassel was not only CompTIA A+ certified, but she had landed an internship at World Services for the Blind. During the internship, Kassel assisted with the CompTIA IT Fundamentals portion of the same DST class she had taken herself.

“I created study guides and worked with the students on the basics of IT. At the end of the class I saw many become certified, and some even move on to the second DST class we offer. It was very fulfilling,” she said.

Immediately following her internship, Kassel was hired on full time as an IT systems administrator and IT instructor. She now teaches the CompTIA IT Fundamentals class – calling it the “pre-algebra” for IT.

“The knowledge I learned through CompTIA A+ has absolutely applied to real life. I manage the support ticket system here, and every day, something comes in that I have to troubleshoot. My mind goes back to that A+ book, and I apply that knowledge every day,” she said.

From Student to Teacher

The instructor portion of her job is something Kassel cherishes as well.

“Everybody has a story,” she said. “Some people here are totally blind and working toward a career in technology. When somebody gets down and starts to think they can’t do it, I tell them they can do it – they just have to do it differently. My job is to figure out the best way each student can learn the material and help them get there.”

For example, Kassel said that giving her students the chance to feel hardware components in their hands is extremely valuable.

“I have to get creative sometimes,” she said. “One thing I’ve done is printed up large-font luggage tags and braille labels and attached them to a motherboard so the students have multiple ways to identify the parts and learn them.”

In fact, while the hardware portion of Kassel’s training proved to be the most difficult, it also turned out to be the part she enjoyed the most.

“Becoming CompTIA A+ certified and everything I’ve experience on the job has showed me that I really enjoy the hardware,” she said. Proving that staying the path and working hard to find your passion is hands down the best reward.

“I value CompTIA certifications because while academic credentials validate that you have the classroom knowledge associated with the job you are applying for, certifications demonstrate that IT pros can apply that classroom knowledge in a real-world, on-the-job scenario,” Kassel said.

As for Kassel’s advice for people who want to move into IT?

“If you’re passionate about something, pursue it. No matter what anyone else thinks. That’s how dreams are achieved,” she said. “Anyone, regardless of gender, race, disability or age can work in IT. Take control and create the life you want!”

Ready to take the first step in your IT career? See if CompTIA A+ is right for you.

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