Monday, July 11, 2011

In Poland, call center provides much-needed jobs for blind people

From AFP:

WARSAW — The steady hum of chatter and the clickety-clack of computer keyboards makes it sound like any other call centre but at this Warsaw market research firm, blindness is no barrier to employment.

The operation runs so smoothly that people on the other end of the phone line have no idea that they're dealing with the visually impaired.

And thanks to new technology, the job gets done without a hitch.

"When you click on an icon, the computer tells you what it is. A sighted person can read it while we can hear it," employee Lukasz Chmielewski told AFP.

Set up last year, the small firm called Quality Cube has 15 employees including 12 who are blind, expanding -- if minimally -- the limited pool of jobs for the visually impaired in Poland.

"These people are the best employees," said company co-founder Marcin Gic. "They are the most loyal. They never take sick days or take a day off because they partied too much the night before, so it's very positive."

Gic sees Quality Cube as a "real business", not a charity. He concedes it took some investment to adapt the office to the needs of blind employees but said it was well worth it and expects to turn a profit next year.

Initially, he planned to allow the blind to work from home via Internet "but it turned out that employees prefer to work here in our office," Gic said.

Typical was Pawel Urbanski, 29, a quality control expert and consultant at Quality Cube who specialises in matching business projects and applied technologies.

"Having to get out into the city every day, take a bus, walk the streets, it really gets you motivated and makes for a refreshing change," said Urbanski, who lost his sight at 13 but went on to study in Poland and abroad.

Though employment and education for disabled is improving in Poland, it is an uphill battle. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development singled out the former communist state, in 2006, as "far below the OECD average" for employing the disabled and urged reforms.

Five years later, the situation for the visually impaired is still lagging, said Elzbieta Oleksiak of the Polish Association of the Blind (PZN).

"Just 14.5 percent of our working age members are employed compared to a rate of 45-50 percent in western Europe," Oleksiak told AFP.

But with joblessness at 12.2 percent in this EU country of 38 million -- compared to an overall 9.3 percent unemployment rate for the 27-nation bloc -- "it's difficult enough for non-handicapped people to find work in Poland and the situation for the handicapped is of course much worse," she said.

Most of Quality Cube's employees were trained at the Laski educational centre for the blind, not Poland's only such school but one that's taken a role in changing perspectives on disabilities and getting disabled people into the work force.

The 280-student facility from elementary to high school has operated just north of Warsaw for the last 100 years.

New to the centre is a course called "typhlo-IT" (based on the Greek prefix referring to blindness), which involves adapting computer equipment and programmes to meet the needs of the visually impaired.

"To minimise the cost of hiring a blind person, we offer employers programs, an interface, expertise and continuous monitoring," said Jan Gawlik, a Laski instructor who developed the system and is himself legally blind.

He launched the project in 1999 but says it has taken off since Poland joined the EU in 2004, thanks to new European funding programs.

Though Laski is a career-oriented centre, training students as telephone operators, massage therapists or other jobs, directors said it's still a struggle to get people to hire the visually impaired.

The directors act as intermediaries with more often than not reluctant employers.

"In general, employers say they would like to hire someone but they're convinced they don't have jobs for a blind person. At that point you have to go to the job site and point out to the employer: 'a blind person can work here, or there'," said Krystyna Konieczna, head of recruitment at the centre.

"And in the end we manage to convince quite a few of them!" she added, saying 70 percent of the graduates go on to full or part-time employment.