Call centres provide career path for the blind

Call centres have often received bad press coverage – particularly over poor use of technology – so it is always pleasing to come across examples of how Call Centre technology can really be used for the good.  In this story we look at initatives in South Africa and the UK that have provided blind and partially sighted employees with a call centre career.

We start by looking at the Insight Call Centre – part of the Athlone School for the Blind Association in South Africa that trains blind and partially sighted students for a call centre career.

“The project started initially as a training project to provide job training for the students,” said Melanie Bailes from Quality Solutions which runs the project.

“The aim was not to train students to work in a sort of sheltered blind call centre. The aim was that they could be incorporated into any call centre. We are terribly pleased that this has happened.”

The Insight Call Centre currently comprises two classrooms, furnished with individual workstations, phones and networked computers to accommodate up to 10 people in each. This forms the “Call Centre” proper while two other classrooms had already been renovated and converted into training rooms equipped with desks and computers and designed to accommodate 15 at a time.

The course started in August 2001 and has been gradually revised into a 3 month course incorporating both practical and theoretical training. After the 3 months’ classroom training, delegates can complete their In-service training with internship in contact centres.

“We started with a group of 50% blind / visually impaired and 50% sighted students to simulate a real working environment, giving the blind students the opportunity of working with sighted students and giving the sighted students a new outlook on their colleagues. This worked extremely well with everyone growing and learning from one another,” continues Bailes.
The course which offers SAQA (South African Quality Accreditation) combines classroom theory elements and the opportunity to apply this knowledge practically in order to ensure that learners have a full understanding of the work. It also includes site visits to experience different areas and aspects of the industry. Both soft skills and harder IT related skills are covered alongside training in life skills and job skills (including CV and letter writing, how to conduct an interview, etc).

The training meets the need for school-to-work or unemployment-to-work vocational skills development to ensure the long-term sustainable employment of students on completion. It is both experiential and outcomes-based, making use of techniques such as role-plays, skills practices, voice recording, etc. as well as complex written and practical assignments that ensure that learning is applied in a simulated environment. At the end of the programme the student receives a SAQA recognised certificate of completion.

Opportunities in the Call Centre Industry

The potential opportunities that call centres provide to blind and visually impaired people are quite significant. This is particularly true in the Western Cape which has been assessed and targeted by government as a cost effective area of business development to be officially promoted, supported and assisted by government as it has the capacity to yield many jobs in a country facing high unemployment.

The most difficult element that has been faced is in convincing companies that the training graduates can work in their own call centres. “They come to our call centre, they seem them working and they say ‘this is wonderful, but I don’t think that it could work in my company.’ I think that they are scared really. They don’t quite know how to handle the handicapped,” continues Melanie Bailes.

All in all around 80 blind or partially students have been placed in employment upon completion of their training. The students have been placed in a real mixture of companies, with a greater concentration in insurance and debt collection.

The school has now received some additional funding which has ensured the stability of the project and the aim is to develop a self-sustaining programme capable of running without donor funding after March 2006.

A second blind call centre is established

But it is not just one blind call centre that has been established. Outsource contact centre provider Direct Channel Marketing runs a call centre at the Pioneer School for the Blind in Worcester, South Africa. The 40-seat, purpose-built call centre is designed to cater for visually impaired staff’s special needs. This call centre differs from the Athlone centre in that it employs blind people – rather then training them for outside work.
Direct Channel Marketing founder and chief executive Suleman Shaik says “Our partnership with the Pioneer School for the Blind and the Institute for the Blind in Worcester is an extension of our social commitment to create work opportunities for people from disadvantaged and marginalised communities”.

Blind call centres in the United Kingdom

So what of the situation in the UK? A spokesperson for the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) gave a stark warning. “There are around 200,000 blind and partially sighted people in the UK of working age. Around 75% of these are out of work”.


But some enlightened call centres are now starting to see that the blind and partially sighted can fit well into the call centre structure. Steve is totally blind and worked, until recently, as a Customer Services Adviser at the RAC Call Centre. Before he joined the RAC in 1997 he had not used computers or access technology at all.

“The absence of this equipment limited the range of computer based tasks that I could do and so, I was, to a point, reliant on my colleagues’ help. The application of access technology has completely revolutionised that way in which I work. Jaws for Windows enables me to navigate the various screens, whilst I discuss everything from an enrolment to a breakdown with a member.”

Steve was worried at first that using speech output whilst working would make him less efficient than his sighted colleagues.

“Before I started this job I did have some reservations about my ability to meet the high standards of performance set out by my employer. But I have no difficulty in listening to the speech output whilst holding a telephone conversation and my overall performance is amongst the highest in the call centre.

The technology I use allows me to operate on the same basis as my sighted colleagues. I am extremely pleased that I am able to do a job of this nature, especially as just a few short years ago the absence of this technology would have prevented me from working in this and many other areas.”

Swale Council

Another enlightened employer is Swale Council. When Terry O’Shea partially lost his eyesight in a car accident in 1985, he was naturally concerned about what career options were open to him. Aged 18 at the time, he discussed his position with the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and enrolled on a number of special training courses to help identify a suitable job.

The training led him to decide on a career as a telephone operator. And when an opening at Swale Council appeared shortly afterwards, Terry joined the Council as its main telephone operator.

Sixteen years on, and Terry is still the voice of Swale Council, greeting thousands of people who call the Council each month. “I’ve been very fortunate,” he says. “I couldn’t have asked for better support and guidance in the time immediately following my accident, and I couldn’t ask for a better organisation to work for today than Swale Council. They’ve really looked after my needs, ensuring that I’m an important member of the customer contact team, and that I’ve got the technology that I need to do the job to the best of my abilities.”

Technology plays an important role in Terry’s working life. He has a 22″ large screen PC on his desk which acts as his operator console, with a special software package called ZoomText that allows Terry to magnify screen text up to 28 times its normal size. ZoomText also has a text-to-speech capability that enables him to convert emails to speech and play them over his operator headset.

Other invaluable tools on Terry’s desk are a CCTV Scanner that allows him to magnify text in books and leaflets up to 36 times, and a Parrott VoiceMate voice-activated personal data assistant for storing and playing back frequently accessed phone numbers.

When it comes to handling incoming and outgoing calls, Terry uses a special screen-based software phone (Softphone) from Macfarlane Telesystems that works in conjunction with the Macfarlane CallPlus call handling system. The CallPlus system was installed when Swale Council set up its successful customer contact centre in 2001, and Terry became an integral part of this customer contact team in 2003. Since then, the Macfarlane support team has supported Terry in ensuring the Softphone is exactly as he needs it – which has meant adjusting many features and changing the colour on the screen phone display to ensure Terry is comfortable using the technology.

Let’s hope that many more call centres follow the lead of Athlone School, the RAC and Swale Council.

By Jonty Pearce, Editor of Call Centre Helper.
Do you employ blind or partially sighted people in your call centre? If you do we’d love to hear about your experiences.

Published On: 2nd Dec 2005 - Last modified: 11th Sep 2019
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