By Terrel L. Bird
In 1989 the Harvard Business Journal published an article about technology bringing blind people into the work place. It stated that roughly 70 percent of blind adults were unemployed but that the advent of the microchip was slowly opening doors of opportunity for these individuals in the workplace, during a time with relatively few technology aides.
Fast-forward 25 years and the technological landscape has dramatically changed. Microchips are old news and other technological advancements have made employment easier for those with severely impaired vision. In fact, 37 percent of visually impaired adults are now employed according to the National Federation of the Blind.
A persistent challenge
While great strides have been made since 1989, finding a ‘home’ in the workplace for visually impaired adults — especially one where they can not only be accepted, but flourish, — remains a challenge. Sixty three percent of blind people in the U.S. are still unemployed, oftentimes held back by a lack of opportunity and workplace tools that can accommodate their disability.
An opportunity for corporate citizenship
As technologies become more sophisticated, and companies focus more attention and resources on corporate citizenship, the needs of this demographic are being addressed.
In 1989, a talking calculator, enlarged print on a computer monitor, and a microchip that could decode information into braille on a cassette tape were useful tools for blind individuals looking to become part of the workplace. In 2015, we see established companies and start-ups alike contributing their solutions to the tech market, from Microsoft’s navigation assistance headset and Apple’s VoiceOver to Nano Retina and ARIANNA App.
New device opens up the literary world to the visually impaired
One new technology born out of MIT’s Media Labs is the FingerReader, a “ring-like device that straps itself around your finger and reads printed text out loud with a synthesized voice.” The device gives real-time feedback if the user’s finger slips away from the line of text and can read back any text, 12-point size font or larger. Considering that only seven to 12 percent of books are available in large print, braille or unabridged audio, this new device will open up the literary world to those with visual impairment.
Call center technology creating job opportunities for the blind
Beyond technology with general life applications, some companies are addressing industry-specific issues to improve opportunities and work life for low-vision or blind adults. The company I founded, TCN, Inc., is opening up a whole new realm of employment for the visually impaired. We provide cloud-based call center technology including a call center technology platform designed specifically for blind and visually impaired call center agents called Platform 3 VocalVision. VocalVision enables companies to hire blind or low vision individuals and train them quickly as call center agents, creating opportunities and opening doors for employment.
With VocalVision, visually impaired employees experience increased autonomy and efficiency and are able to better serve the callers. This new addition to the TCN software has been extremely beneficial for these individuals as well as call centers. For example, one call center that has implemented the technology experienced lower employee turnover rates (among those who are visually impaired) and increased productivity of 25 percent.
Intel simplifying office tasks for the disabled
It’s not only the blind community that is being served by new assistive technologies. In December 2014, Intel announced a new collaboration with Stephen Hawking that would make updates to the communication system he’d been using for the past decade. This new assistive technology will streamline what are seemingly simple tasks, making things like web browsing and writing emails twice as fast. This can mean big changes for how those dealing with a motor neuron disease like Hawking are able to work – opening new windows of opportunity and equipping them to perform at an even higher level.
Assistive Technologies are a catalyst for innovation
As the proliferation of assistive technologies continues, more and more disabled individuals will hopefully be able to seamlessly enter workplace environments. But beyond the positive social impacts for those with disabilities, assistive technologies are also considered to be prime examples of unleashed innovation. At the Social Innovation Summit in 2013, this was a hot topic of conversation. As attendee Jacqueln Vanacek asked in an article she wrote for Forbes, “What if technologists designed solutions for the disabled first, as their most challenging target market?” With that background and challenge under their belts, consider the innovative solutions they could bring to other needs and industries that might continue to change the world.
A successful serial entrepreneur, Terrel L. Bird, CEO and co-founder of TCN, has been at the forefront of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and call center technology for more than 15 years. Founded in 1999, TCN is a provider of cloud-based call center technology for enterprises, contact centers, BPOs and collection agencies worldwide. For more information, visit www.tcnp3.com or follow on Twitter @tcn.