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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 March 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 2

On the Job Profile

Keep the Customers Satisfied

Each time you've made a hotel reservation, had questions about your bank account, booked an airplane flight, or wondered why your cell phone wasn't saving voice mail messages, chances are you've had a conversation with a customer service representative. Typically, we address these kinds of concerns by dialing an 800 number and talking with someone whose computer screen holds all the information we need. More and more of these human assistants happen to be blind people using assistive technology. In the hospitality industry, utilities, wireless communications, and elsewhere, blind people can be found among the ranks of sales and support personnel.

The three chosen for this article have been on the job from fewer than two years to more than 20 and should give prospective job seekers and employers a sense of the vast possibilities.

Delta Dawn

When Dana Nichols, of Montgomery, Alabama, lost her medical insurance because of the breakup of her marriage a few years ago, embarking on a new type of employment may not have been the most apparent solution to some people. She had worked as an adjunct professor, teaching college English for many years, but the job offered no medical benefits, and she was spending $400 per month for prescription drugs. Her status as a woman, nearing 50, and blind might have been counted by some as three check marks in the liabilities column, but Nichols was undaunted.

"I just sat down and made a list of all the kinds of things I could do," Nichols says in her melodious Alabama accent. A new Delta Airlines reservation center had opened in Montgomery, and working there was among the things that sounded like fun.

A counselor from the state's vocational rehabilitation agency became involved in her pursuit. "She was wonderful," Nichols recalls. The counselor "badgered and pestered" her prospective employer relentlessly, and Delta Airlines ultimately warmed to the idea of giving a blind person a try. In August 2000, her training began with the promise that if she survived it, she would be hired.

Although Nichols's experience is not particularly representative of what many blind and visually impaired job seekers encounter, it may well serve as an example of how the vocational rehabilitation system can work. After a few months of training and supervision, Nichols was working independently and competitively as a Delta Airlines reservation sales representative. She handles calls from customers who may be anywhere in the United States. Whether they are looking for the lowest fare or trying to retrieve a pair of lost sunglasses, her job is to handle calls, satisfy customers, and sell airline tickets.

The proper selection and installation of and training in assistive technology that works for the job can make or break this kind of employment situation. Bartamaeus Group, a Virginia-based consulting firm, modified Nichols's workstation and provided necessary training. Nichols uses a combination of braille and speech to do the job.

When she first turns on her computer, there is required reading for all personnel. For speed, she usually addresses this task with the speech synthesis provided by JAWS for Windows (JFW) 3.7. The information covered may include new security measures, delays to be expected, or the weather report in Atlanta. When she is finished, she presses a key on her keyboard, and the customer calls begin.

Her dual-purpose headset carries the voice of her customer in one ear and the synthesized voice of her screen reader in the other. Her greatest tool, however, in searching for schedule and fare information, is her HandiTech, an 80-cell refreshable braille display with a built-in computer keyboard. Reading information from tables of schedules and fares in braille is much more efficient, she says, than trying to glean needed numbers by listening. Sales representatives are evaluated on the basis of calls handled and tickets sold, and to be competitive as a blind person, Nichols has needed to orchestrate her multisensory tools in just the right way. She may listen to JFW, for instance, running rapidly through a screen to find her place. Once there, she silences the voice and peruses the facts in braille.

Nearing her two-year mark on the job, she now handles 70 to 100 calls daily and says that her average call-handling time (5 minutes) is near that of her sighted coworkers. (In the beginning, her average call took 10 minutes to complete.)

While her wages aren't high (starting at about $10 per hour), her benefits are excellent. The prescriptions that previously cost $400 a month now cost only $36, and she has a 401K plan, paid vacation, otherwise excellent medical coverage and—the benefit that keeps all employees smiling—the privilege of flying anywhere, anytime, that Delta Airlines flies, for free. At least two more blind people have been hired to work as reservation sales representatives in other Delta Airlines call centers since Nichols began, which is perhaps the best indication of how well things are working out.

Take the "A" Train

Nancy Ungar, who works as a sales representative for Amtrak in the company's Riverside, California, phone center, uses similar equipment to Dana Nichols's setup, but has gone through many evolutionary stages of assistive technology along the way. When hired in April 1980, her only method of accessing Amtrak's computerized schedule and fare information was holding the CRT lens of an Optacon to the monitor. No longer manufactured, the Optacon was one of the first devices that enabled blind people to access printed information directly. The user would guide a lens over printed characters with one hand and, with the index finger of the other hand, receive a tactile representation of the image. Compared with the direct access provided by braille displays today or 400-plus words per minute babbled by speech synthesizers, this technique seems painstakingly slow. Still, it provided the access to the computer screen necessary to get the job done. Ungar recalls that sometimes her arm would get incredibly fatigued from holding the lens against the computer's screen. Yet, she continued to receive positive evaluations, to get pay raises, and to work competitively.

After 10 years on the job, Ungar was thrilled when her employer added a 40-cell Navigator to her workstation, giving her direct braille access to the information needed to assist customers. Today, she uses an 80-cell PowerBraille display. Although her system is equipped with JFW 4.0 and has speech capabilities, Ungar rarely uses speech. In addition to blindness, she has a significant hearing impairment (she wears two hearing aids and uses an amplified telephone on the job) and thus finds braille much more efficient than synthesized speech.

"My job is to sell Amtrak," she explains simply, but there are many other kinds of calls that come her way in the 80 or 90 phone conversations conducted in a typical eight-hour day. She fixes mistakes, arranges for special services, and explains fare structures. Although her system is Windows based, the software used for tracking information on fares and schedules, called Railroad, is a DOS application. Ungar uses a Braille Lite 18 and a Perkins brailler to take notes on customers' calls. "My call time is a little longer than some sighted agents," she says, "but my sales are high."

Ungar is the only blind person working in this capacity for Amtrak, but she says there are agents with other disabilities in the Riverside call center. After 21 years, she quips, at age 47, that the best part of her job is going home. In a more serious vein, she points out that she takes satisfaction in knowing she has done a procedure well, helped another person, and been productive. She earns $35,000 to $40,000 a year, has excellent medical coverage, a good retirement plan, and significant savings on train travel. "I have very good bosses," Ungar says. "They expect me to have the same statistics and attend the same trainings as everyone else."

Call on Me

Scott Hegel, age 39, is pretty sure that he's the only blind person anywhere doing his particular job. He also finds that situation ironic, since the work is so easily adapted with assistive technology. As a business application consultant for Nors tan Communications in Milwaukee, Hegel is responsible for selling and installing PBX phone systems in hospitals and businesses nationwide. Yet, he rarely leaves his desk.

With Hyperterminal and a 56K modem, he dials into computer systems running customers' 100-plus phone systems anywhere in the country. He can install, adjust, and repair the phone features of a customer's multiline telephone system. Sometimes, he trains a new system administrator on the layers of features provided in a new voice mail system. Sometimes, he helps get into a voice mail box that has been inadvertently locked. He may move, consolidate, or alter mailboxes and features—and he does all of it from his own keyboard.

Hegel uses JFW 3.7 and an 80-cell PowerBraille. His braille display shows all the functions and features of a given system easily. He says he has learned the software of hundreds of such communications products—Octel, ZMX, Audix, and many others. "I'm not a programmer per se," he says, but he has mastered the quirks and details to make software work the way a customer needs it to.

Some companies do not have a designated system administrator for their phone systems. In that case, Hegel provides the training and troubleshoots problems himself. "I may be answering a question for an employee somewhere in Texas," he says, "and they usually don't even know that I'm in Milwaukee." Although his system offers speech, he relies primarily on the braille display to do his job. For storing phone numbers and appointments, he uses the Parrot Voice Mate, a personal organizer with voice recognition.

A self-proclaimed "phone freak," Hegel loves his job and would recommend it to others. His salary is in the $40,000 to $45,000 range, his medical and vacation benefits are excellent, and he is interacting with interesting people every day.

Like Nichols and Ungar, Hegel is the only blind person in his particular place of business. Also like the others, he rarely has occasion to mention his blindness to the person he is assisting. All three depend heavily on assistive technology, particularly braille, and they all say they would recommend the job to others.

Certainly, individual ability and persistence played a part in these three people obtaining employment. Connecting with experts with the knowledge to make assistive technology adapt to the specific tasks at hand was also critical to their success. Another interesting common denominator was the expectation, of each of their employers, that the job functions could be adapted and that, with accommodation, a blind worker could be as productive as anyone else. "Delta bent over backward to give me the tools I needed," Nichols says. Once established, however, each expressed a sense of equality on the job.

Of course, in a perfect world, that sort of climate would just be taken for granted. Maybe in an almost-perfect world, more people who are blind and visually impaired will be trained and accommodated in these and other jobs.

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