How Technology Helps Blind Persons Succeed in Customer Engagement

By Douglas Goist

In 1938, seventy-four years before this October’s annual celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the US Congress created the National Industries for the Blind (NIB) as a means to provide jobs for blind Americans. Despite this monumental achievement, however, both NIB and the federal government could identify few employment opportunities outside of producing brooms and mops for persons who were blind and visually impaired.

Meanwhile, private sector companies were creating more highly skilled blue-collar jobs for America’s sighted workforce in rapid fashion – a trend that continued into the 1950s and beyond.

From steel to automobile manufacturing, a half-century of economic growth spurred US employers to create tens of thousands of good paying jobs. US citizens with adequate training and job skills could achieve the American dream.

Individuals with disabilities, on the other hand, could not. Their dreams were obfuscated by the harsh glare of reality. A chronic lack of equal accessibility provided little chance for Americans who were blind to experience the Declaration-inspired “pursuit of happiness” fostered by such common ideals as wage earning, career growth, home ownership, and sound financial investment.

If you were blind during the manufacturing renaissance of the mid-twentieth century and had no access to sighted assistance from a family member or volunteer, you were left behind and almost certainly jobless.

Enter the digital age. As US manufacturing jobs moved overseas in the 1990s, a new sector of employment opportunities opened for Americans. Thanks in part to groundbreaking scientific discoveries during the US-Soviet Cold War era of the 1980s, advanced technologies were developed with great success in the information and communications sectors. This led to a myriad of employment choices for today’s twenty-first century, in-demand techno workforce.

What about those who are blind? Has this tech boom finally given blind and visually impaired employees the tools needed in order to catch up with their sighted counterparts in terms of wages, job ascendancy, and the American dream? The answer is…almost.

Thanks to the miniaturization and data storage breakthroughs in the fields of computer science and information technologies during the 1969 NASA Apollo Space program and the 1980s Apple Macintosh/Microsoft PC era, an astonishing number of optical technologies are now being used with great success by persons who are blind.

Although there is still a long way to go in terms of hiring persons who are blind for white, pink, and blue-collar jobs, the explosion of adaptive technology tools is helping to level the playing field and create job opportunities without boundaries.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the twenty-four nationwide customer contact centers operated by NIB and its network of ninety associated nonprofit agencies.

Powerful new assistive computer software, combined with the latest in LCD and LED computer screen technology, have transformed yesterday’s small-screened, boxy, and limited-resolution computer monitors into large and feather-light contact center slivers of dancing three-dimensional glass, diodes, and light.

Each NIB associated agency uses this new screen pixel technology in combination with font magnification software with names like ZoomText and MAGic to bring diverse contact center information into sharp focus for skilled agents needing just a little extra help reading computer displays.

NIB’s own employees use new optical video magnification technologies at its Alexandria, Virginia, headquarters to capture images from digital and paper Skilcraft® product order forms while quickly increasing font sizes, boosting font contrast, or reassigning background and font colors on the fly to achieve maximum readability.

These digital magnifiers, with names like SmartView and Eye Pal, are able to magnify fonts from 1.5 to 36 times and all sizes in between. White paper glare is eliminated through a color inversion of the paper image. Black font on a white paper image is quickly “flipped” into an x-ray-like black page image with white text. Both functions are performed with the touch of a button.

Moreover, text-to-speech computer screen reading advancements like JAWS (Job Access With Speech) and Window-Eyes allow blind NIB contact center representatives to hear order requests for any of the more than 3,500 Skilcraft products, which are read aloud in clearly understandable English and dozens of other languages. A blind user can assign customized text labels to graphics and photo images on their screens and find out the colors, sizes, and styles of font information audibly and independently while listening to customer calls through separate headsets and ear buds.

One giant, Neil-Armstrong digital leap enables blind employees to use small, mounted digital cameras as “surrogate eyes” that instantly capture and translate text from paper documents into highly intelligible synthesized human speech through advanced OCR (optical character recognition) algorithms – a job that once could only be performed by sighted human readers just a few years ago.

“It’s NIB’s single mission to find jobs and employment opportunities for persons who are blind,” said Mary Johnson, NIB’s director of strategic market development. “Just because you have vision loss, you should not be automatically excluded from the American manufacturing and services job markets. With help from organizations and teleservices providers, NIB is better able to leverage these new technologies to create employment opportunities for really smart, talented, and capable individuals who are among the 70 percent of working-age Americans that are blind and unemployed.”

Johnson said that the more private teleservices companies’ hiring managers are aware of the availability of new, affordable adaptive technologies, the more they will be willing to hire internal contact center agents who are blind and external contractors like NIB, which specifically hires individuals who are blind. She also said NIB is not focused on operating thousand-plus seat contact centers, but rather centers with seats that number in the dozens – a niche market NIB and its associated nonprofit agencies can easily fill.

“Because our contact centers are relatively small, we work hand in hand with each client. Our associated agencies that provide teleservices have received great customer satisfaction responses from our diverse federal government clientele – and we are very encouraged to now see interest in our capabilities on the private side,” Johnson said.

“Thanks to incredible modern technologies like screen magnifiers, text recognition, and screen-reading software, all should have access to the American dream. No longer should a person be jobless in today’s society just because he or she is blind.”

Douglas Goist is a NIB assistive technology specialist.

[From Connection Magazine November 2012]

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