CALT graduates first blind student

Joseph Lininger, Civilian Acculturation and Leadership Training student, listens carefully as a CALT training instructor gives safety instructions before students move through Project X, Feb. 2, 2016, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Lininger said he hopes that his accomplishments will make others think twice before discounting someone simply because they have a disability. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexa Culbert)

Joseph Lininger, Civilian Acculturation and Leadership Training student, listens carefully as a CALT training instructor gives safety instructions before students move through Project X, Feb. 2, 2016, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Lininger said he hopes that his accomplishments will make others think twice before discounting someone simply because they have a disability. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexa Culbert)

Joseph Lininger, Civilian Acculturation and Leadership Training student, collaborates with a fellow student during a Project X obstacle Feb. 2, 2016, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Lininger listens as his classmates describe the obstacle in front of them and then decides the best way for them to execute the mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexa Culbert)

Joseph Lininger, Civilian Acculturation and Leadership Training student, collaborates with a fellow student during a Project X obstacle Feb. 2, 2016, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Lininger listens as his classmates describe the obstacle in front of them and then decides the best way for them to execute the mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexa Culbert)

Joseph Lininger, Civilian Acculturation and Leadership Training student, guides his classmates using a radio as they maneuver through a Project X obstacle Feb. 2, 2016, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Because he is blind, he was not able to physically participate in the obstacles. However, Lininger guided his classmates by playing the part of a commanding officer who is not physically with his unit. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexa Culbert)

Joseph Lininger, Civilian Acculturation and Leadership Training student, guides his classmates using a radio as they maneuver through a Project X obstacle Feb. 2, 2016, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Because he is blind, he was not able to physically participate in the obstacles. However, Lininger guided his classmates by playing the part of a commanding officer who is not physically with his unit. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexa Culbert)

Joseph Lininger, Civilian Acculturation and Leadership Training student, receives his graduation certificate from Col. Patricia Hoffman, vice commander of the Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development, during the CALT graduation of class 16-03 Feb. 5, 2016, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Lininger was the first blind student to attend and graduate from the CALT course. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexa Culbert)

Joseph Lininger, Civilian Acculturation and Leadership Training student, receives his graduation certificate from Col. Patricia Hoffman, vice commander of the Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development, during the CALT graduation of class 16-03 Feb. 5, 2016, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Lininger was the first blind student to attend and graduate from the CALT course. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexa Culbert)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The sound of hands clapping echoes off the walls of the small auditorium as a gentleman makes his way up to the front of the room to receive his graduation certificate. He searches for the hand of Col. Patricia Hoffman, Jeanne M. Holm Center vice commander, who is waiting to congratulate him on a job well done. The gentleman's name is Joseph Lininger, a student at the Civilian Acculturation and Leadership Training (CALT) course held at the Officer Training School (OTS) campus.  However, Lininger possesses a disability that makes his achievement even more impressive; he is completely blind. 

Lininger, an Air Force Space Command Headquarters systems analyst, graduated on Feb. 5, 2016 as the first blind student from the CALT course, and many believe him to be the first blind student from any Air University resident program.

Lininger was born blind due to an undeveloped optic nerve, the nerve that connects the eye to the brain.  It left him with only an acknowledgement of light, shapes and some colors.

"Everybody has their challenges growing up, and because I grew up not being able to see, I don't know if I grew up having challenges that you didn't have," He said.
Despite his unique challenges, Lininger was able to participate in most normal activities growing up.

"I was on the speech and debate team...there were things that I could do and there were things that I couldn't. I didn't want to accept those limitations and in some ways that is what made me who I am," He said.

In high school, Lininger was also on the wrestling team and lifted weights as a hobby; however, he admits there were certain activities he had to sit out on.

While holding back a laugh, Lininger says, "I wanted to ride a bicycle, but it wasn't until I was a teenager that I realized that that was a bad idea."

Lininger gives credit to his mother and grandmother for teaching him not to accept limitations set by society.

"My mom and grandma encouraged me to basically try anything I wanted to try and not to accept limitations strictly based on my disability," he said.
His mother fought with the school system to allow him to learn along with sighted peers, rather than be sent to a special education or private school.

"She said society is not going to be all blind people, he needs to learn how to function normal, because if he is going to be a normal person, he's going to have to compete in a regular society," she said. "That was something that she raised me to believe as well and did it until I was old enough to fight for it myself."

In 2013, Lininger completed his undergraduate degree and he is currently working toward his PhD in computer science.

Lininger first began working for the U.S. Air Force in 2012.  He said he wanted to join the military straight out of high school, but obviously couldn't because he was blind.  When he learned that the Air Force had civilian positions, he knew that would be the next best thing to serving. 

After being hired by the Air Force Space Command Headquarters, Lininger learned about the CALT course and thought it would provide him with good exposure to leadership principles and the military culture.  He followed the application process through AFPC and was selected for CALT.
 
In the early evening hours on January 24, 2016, Lininger arrived at Maxwell with his fellow students ready to begin the 10- day course.

The goal of the course is to introduce newly hired, non-prior service Air Force civilian employees to the Air Force culture and prepare them for future leadership, managerial and supervisory roles.

Students are taught on the OTS campus, live in the OTS or Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps dorms, eat at the OTS dining facility and have the chance to interact with OTS cadets and experience military training first hand.

Upon the knowledge of his arrival, the CALT staff had concerns on whether or not the course could be changed to accommodate Lininger's disability.

"Initially we were a little stunned," said Douglas, McCarty, CALT course director. "We never had a student that was totally blind attend our course before. We were a little concerned that Mr. Lininger would not receive the full experience of the course."
However, Lininger was able to participate like any other student with the help of text-to-speech computer software and a little assistance from his classmates.

"Joe is a great guy, very motivated just as all of our CALT students are, so I've found that it's no different teaching him than any of our other students," said Robert Arrington, CALT instructor.

Since Lininger's arrival to Maxwell, the staff began thinking about the future and how they should plan for future students with disabilities.

"He has been phenomenal in his willingness to work with us while we try to lay the ground work on how to assist folks with disabilities in the future," said James Wiggins, Holm Center Curriculum Directorate director. "It's just not something you think about if you don't have to deal with it."

Lininger came to Maxwell to be taught; however, his instructors learned a lot from him.

"This has been a great learning experience and proves the point that all Airmen are a valuable part of the Air Force team regardless of disabilities or abilities." said Arrington.  "We all play a part in getting the Air Force mission done."