LaShonna Griffin remembers how hard it was to find a job after an eye disease left her with partial vision.
Prospective employers refused to see how the former assistant clothing store manager was a strong candidate. She has great customer service skills. She’s excited about learning and taking on new tasks. She’s not afraid of technology. Hiring managers didn’t seem to want to look beyond how retinitis pigmentosa had obstructed her peripheral, or side, vision.
“People tend to say they don’t look at that, but they really do,” Griffin said.
After a long and tiring search, she found an employer impressed with her attributes. For the last six years Griffin has worked at the Cleveland Sight Center’s call center. Like her, all of the nearly 80 customer service agents, most of whom are either visually impaired or blind. The 10-year-old call center provides customer service for more than 15 businesses and government agencies and handles about 800,000 calls a year, said Larry Benders, CSC’s president and CEO.
There are two things Benders and others at CSC stress about the call center. The first is that it employs a segment of workers who have historically had a high unemployment rate. Only about 20% of people with disabilities were employed in 2022, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The second is that the call center is run like a business. It is not a make-work program. The revenue it generates helps fund the nonprofit’s programs aiding 4,000 clients in “navigating a world oriented toward people with sight,” Benders said. Pay for call center employees is competitive, said Jassen Tawil, vice president of strategic initiatives at CSC, who oversees the call center. The average customer service representative in Ohio makes $18.83 an hour, according to the BLS.
“It turns out that people with vision impairments, or who go blind, can be excellent customer service agents,” Benders said. “The phone is a kind of great equalizer.”
Adaptive technology also helps. Like at any call center, employees are seated in front of computer screens. Visually impaired agents can read the screens because of aids such as software that creates large fonts and contrasting colors. Blind agents can serve callers because of screen readers that convert written words into speech.
You’ve probably spoken with someone in the CSC call center and not known it. Have you ever called the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office for information about registering to vote or finding your polling location? Did you call the COVID hotline to find out where to get a vaccine? Are you a teacher or a nurse who called to get online help with renewing your license?
“You were talking to someone who was blind or visually impaired,” Tawil said.
Griffin said the call center’s success offers a lesson for anyone with doubts about the visually impaired and blind being able to do the job. She’s also an escalation specialist. Griffin is the person callers are transferred to when they ask to speak with a manager.
“If I can answer your questions, there should be no concern of how I’m answering your questions,” she said.
Fellow employee Stats Ky Bey agrees. A former substitute teacher, she also owned a business whose services included stocking vending machines. Bey gradually lost her sight to chronic uveitis. (“It’s like rheumatoid arthritis, but it’s in your eyes,” she said.) She said the steady jobs the call center provides have been life-changing for many employees.
“There is strength and dignity in work,” said Bey, who has worked on and off at the call center for 10 years. “Employment gives people with disabilities choices they would not have otherwise had.”
CSC has tapped into the market of companies and agencies wanting to outsource their call centers, but not to overseas operations.
“Our customers are usually having some challenges with their call center or they need to do some things that their own in-house team couldn’t handle,” Tawil said.
CSC has been handling voting-related and business license calls for the Ohio Secretary of State’s office since the department outsourced them in 2016. When Frank LaRose became secretary in 2019, the call center was among his early visits.
“I wanted to build a personal relationship with them,” he said. “In many ways, they’re kind of the front door of our office. When somebody calls 877-SOS-OHIO, they’re going to reach the Cleveland Sight Center. I can’t say enough about the work that they do. It’s been a great partnership.”
LaRose said it’s because call center employees get the job done. They consistently have quality ratings above 90%.
CSC is hoping to increase its number of customers. One of its newest customers is DigitalC. The nonprofit’s focus includes increasing digital literacy, providing affordable internet service and “building a reliable high-speed internet network,” especially for Cleveland underserved neighborhoods. CSC has only been providing call center services since March, and already DigitalC CEO Joshua Edmonds is impressed.
“Right now we’re trending at a 98% customer satisfaction rate,” he said.
It’s definitely an improvement from DigitalC’s former in-house operation, but Edmonds declined to say by how much.
LaRose and Edmonds said outsourcing initially drew some ire in their workplaces because it eliminated jobs. Both say outsourcing has been more efficient than operating in-house call centers.
Edmonds said the partnership with CSC means that DigitalC can direct more of its resources and energy to its core mission such as expanding high-speed internet in Cleveland neighborhoods. He said outsourcing to CSC means that “potentially a neighbor is answering another neighbor’s call,” just like with the in-house call center. For example, Bey and Griffin both live in Cleveland.
The nonprofits are located near each other; CSC at East 101st Street and Chester Avenue and DigitalC at Euclid Avenue and East 69th Street. Both are engaged in efforts aimed at improving the economic well-being of residents: The call center provides jobs to a group with a high unemployment rate. DigitalC’s push to close the digital divide could make residents more marketable.
“We share intrinsic values,” Edmonds said.”That allows us to walk together more effectively.”
Call center’s origins
CSC used to train its clients as customer service agents and get them placed at outside call centers. Sometimes clients faced the whims of employers. They were open to hiring people with disabilities when finding employees was difficult. Otherwise, many employers were less enthusiastic about hiring people who needed accommodations.
Then the nonprofit’s leadership drew a connection between training agents for other employers and the constant fundraising CSC was doing to support its programs, which usually aren’t covered by health insurance.
“We thought that if we can actually generate money from a call center, we could pay our clients a good wage and help pay for our other programs like the preschool, the clinic for low vision aids, Leisure and Lifestyle Services and all the other things we have that we have to pay for,” Benders said.
He declined to say how much the call center brings in a year. The information isn’t broken out in the publicly available records that CSC, like all nonprofits, file with the Internal Revenue Service. The nonprofit’s latest two-year contract with the Secretary of State’s office is about $2.2 million.
The call center is like any other these days, with most employees now working remotely. A screen shows some of the center’s impressive numbers, including an average quality score of 97%.
Tameka Kennedy sits in one of the cubicles, smiling as she takes a call. The size of the type on her screen is about 60 point, versus the 12-point size most sighted people use. Her keyboard has large yellow keys that are easier for her to see.
Many agents use Job Access With Speech (JAWS), a screen reader that converts written words into speech. They simultaneously listen to JAWS through one ear of their headset and the caller out of the other.
“Our agents are listening to what sounds like, to the untrained ear, insect buzzing,” Benders said of JAWS.
When the secretary of state visited, he got to try JAWS out and marveled at how the agents did this work.
“They have amazing skill,” he said. “The coordination it takes to do this is astounding.”
Bey, who was among the center’s first employees, remembers the elation and anticipation of her co-workers in the early days of the call center. Creating jobs for visually impaired and blind workers in a supportive environment held such promise.
“We just knew that what was happening was bigger than us,” she said. “It’s been like having a child. You just watch it grow – and succeed.”