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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 January 2008 Issue  Volume 9  Number 1

Access Issues

Your Accessibility Is Extremely Important to Us: A Look at the Usability of Technology at Call Centers

Many careers and job opportunities are influenced by the accessibility of technology for those who are blind or have low vision. Recently, AFB TECH received a request to provide some advice to an employer near the AFB TECH office in Huntington, West Virginia. This request, to evaluate the usability of the technology in a call center, presented an opportunity for us to have a look at the challenges and the status of accessibility of call center technology.

For a number of years, job seekers who are blind or have low vision were encouraged to consider employment as customer service representatives. These positions took advantage of the emerging access technology of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The intervening decade has brought many changes and an almost-revolutionary transformation of the systems that customer service representatives use.

Have these changes made it less likely that screen readers and screen magnification can provide access? Are customer service jobs still open to candidates who are blind or have low vision? We asked several technical experts to give us some behind-the-scenes information and share their insights about the technology that is used in today's call centers.

The Inside Scoop

AccessWorld interviewed the information technology (IT) site manager for a large, 700-seat call center. Because of the highly competitive and proprietary nature of the call center industry, he has asked us to withhold his name.

AccessWorld first wanted to know what kind of technology the customer service representatives use. According to the IT site manager, the primary interface, in most instances, is based on HTML. This means that web browsing technology supports the presentation of information on the computer terminal that the representatives use.

The hardware in the call center with which the IT site manager is associated and most others that he is aware of is PC based. The system that the representatives use is not that different from a basic home or simple office computer. This means that access technology, such as a screen reader or magnification application, can be supported. In addition, a telephone headset and console are provided at each workstation.

So far, the picture may appear bright. Web browsing and HTML interfaces are well supported by several well-known access technologies. Unfortunately, there is much complexity, and there are many potential technical barriers. Although an HTML interface presents information, in many instances the information is actually old or inaccessible. An example is an application that is used by the representatives in the call center where the IT site manager works. At a certain point, the representatives invoke a terminal session. This part of the larger interface pulls specific information from the servers of the organization that the representatives are supporting. Although the interface is HTML and potentially accessible, the specific screen with the data is not. In this simple example, a well-constructed page is of no help if there are data that cannot be accessed. Regrettably, no alternative has been found in this particular instance, despite efforts to test and design for compatibility with access technology.

In another example, the IT site manager cited a major domestic airline. In the call center of that airline, no fewer than six different applications are used by each representative. A modern HTML application provides the primary interface. Testing revealed that while the HTML interface was accessible, the other five components were not.

We were interested to learn why so many vastly different components and seemingly incompatible technologies end up in the systems. The answer is that the client drives what information is accessed by the representative and how it is presented. In many instances--the financial industry, for example--it is common to have old databases holding the information about a customer. As time and business requirements evolve, new systems are added, but the old systems are rarely revised. Although some large call center companies create the user interface for representatives, they must rely on the customers' systems to provide the information as it is displayed. The resulting patchwork quilt of display technologies is inevitable.

Among the most difficult legacy technologies to provide accessibility for is screen scraping--moving data displayed on a remote computer to one's computer screen--because it cannot be reformatted on your computer. This method is commonplace, even in today's computing environment. The IT site manager was aware of access technology and clearly understood the methods and limitations of current-generation screen-access products. He stated that his company and several others he knows of routinely test for accessibility. The purpose of such testing is to attempt to expand the opportunities for employment of qualified representatives who use access technology.

The need to recruit and retain qualified representatives drives much of the human resource activity of the typical call center. AFB TECH was contacted by a nearby call center after the center's director of human resources had talked with several blind persons in the community about employment opportunities. I offered to make a brief on-site visit to look at the interface and make some observations.

When I arrived, I was greeted by the director of human resources and the head of the on-site computing team. The system that I evaluated was the standard setup that the representatives use. A current screen reader had been installed on the system. To its credit, the company had asked the blind individuals themselves to look at the system and try it for accessibility. These experienced screen-reader users reported some difficulty, which resulted in the request for information from AFB TECH.

My notes to the IT director and head of human resources reflect the following. The interface that I used was pure HTML and accessed with Internet Explorer. The screen was divided into several regions, distinguished by colored backgrounds in red and blue. The representatives were servicing the accounts for a nationally recognized direct distributor of food products.

The HTML, while well formed, was made difficult to use by a significant lag time for each screen to display. This lag time resulted in situations in which the screen reader could not be used for 20 seconds or more because the screen data had not loaded completely.

Several minor issues with respect to the web page itself were also observed. The result is that for this application, the technical difficulties are not directly related to accessibility. At the same time, the long time it takes to load a page will need to be resolved before a screen reader can be used.

A secondary issue emerged. A script that a representative reads to a customer is generated as the interface is used and the call progresses. In the call center where I evaluated the technology, representatives were free to read the script verbatim. They were also equally free to summarize the information, in a more natural conversational manner, once they were familiar with the process and relevant information.

The IT site manager commented that some companies are strict about representatives reading scripts. Some customers change the scripts frequently, and strict standards for their use are applied.

With this overview of our brief encounter with a call center application and practical insights from the IT expert, what should the user of access technology keep in mind if he or she is considering working at a call center?

The first task is to be totally familiar with your screen-access technology. Rapid and efficient movement among specific regions on the screen is critical to remain productive. Both conventional techniques, such as finding a specific link, and less conventional strategies, such as finding a specific word or phrase on the page, may be necessary.

If scripts must be followed, be sure that you can repeat the script in a natural voice as it is read by the screen reader. On the other hand, if you use a braille display, make sure your reading skills are up to the task.

With familiarity with your technology in hand, approaching call centers is the next step. Some organizations, such as major hotel chains, have a good track record of hiring and promoting representatives who are visually impaired.

Some call centers focus on a particular client. Still others may expect representatives to answer calls for a number of organizations with potentially different and inaccessible systems. You can often learn what the centers in your area offer by word of mouth. Ask your friends and acquaintances. You may be surprised just how much information you can gather.

Once a specific position is available, researching the technology is a must. If you are working with a vocational rehabilitation counselor, you need to ask for technology services. If you are going it on your own, it may be useful to contact your preferred screen-reader company directly. Although the developers of screen readers will not be aware of every kind of call center application, they will be able to connect you with organizations that specialize in providing access solutions to employers.

Networking with other people who are visually impaired who are working in the customer service field to learn more about opportunities is a logical step. AFB offers a resource at the web site www.afb.org/careerconnect. The web site, which connects mentors who are successfully employed with those who are seeking information about jobs, includes several individuals who work in the customer service field and are willing to answer questions and offer information.

Like a typical telephone call for technical support, our interaction with the call center in our neighborhood and conversations with those who are experienced in the field were brief. These contacts gave us some useful information and updated us on an area of employment that some people find rewarding. If you are interested in more information, we encourage you to contact either CareerConnect or other people who are visually impaired in your area.

If you are working in a call center, we would like to hear from you. How accessible is the software that you need to use? What problems have you encountered? Write to us at accessworld@afb.net.

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Copyright © 2008 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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