Innovative program at Perkins School for the Blind provides training and coaching to jumpstart careers for blind and visually impaired young adults
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, only 44 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired are employed. Barriers to upward mobility and employment include employer attitudes, interpersonal communication challenges, inaccessible online applications, lack of transportation, and insufficient education. Conversely, factors such as assistive technology training, education, mentoring, and peer and family support all increase the likelihood of meaningful employment.
Perkins School for the Blind’s innovative training and career services program, Career Launch @ Perkins, is helping blind and visually impaired young adults land career-track jobs. The curriculum provides the hands-on training and experience necessary to build a sustainable career in professional fields focused on customer success. The program includes business fundamentals education, job skills, common workplace tools, job simulations, and a year of career services support.
Customer Service Perspectives from the Field
One important aspect of the program involves webinar sessions with customer service professionals who share their on-the-job experiences and advice with the trainees. During a recent Zoom session, Alicia Smith, Associate Director of Training at Perkins School for the Blind, introduced three customer service professionals who were eager to share their wisdom with four Career Launch trainees. For the next hour, the panelists answered questions about on-the-job responsibilities, a typical day, challenges they have faced, and their career progression so far.
The panelists’ experience spanned several different industries. Angela, a customer support specialist with nine years of experience, provides technical and account support for members of Bookshare, an accessible ebook library for people with reading barriers. Angela is blind and has a guide dog. Rachel, who is sighted, is an associate customer care manager for a software company, and Kara, also sighted, conducts customer service training and recruiting for bank associates.
What is a Typical Day Like?
All three panelists are experts at multitasking as they shift from case queues, emails, and phone calls to Salesforce logs, research, and chats with coworkers. Angela, who is based in northern California, starts her day at 5:00 am to accommodate east coast customers. Rachel supervises a team of six agents, so her day involves check-ins with her team as well as her leadership. Kara adds recruiting and training delivery to her task list.
What Does It Take to Be Successful?
Strong communication and interpersonal skills are at the top of the list. Angela stressed the importance of listening without interrupting and asking probing questions to discern what a customer’s actual problem is. Rachel urged participants to learn how to handle impatient customers and develop a strategy for remaining calm under pressure. Finally, Kara said to avoid distractions so you can focus completely on the customer.
“Working in customer service as a blind individual is completely attainable, as a result of hearing about Angela’s success.”-Anachie S., Career Launch trainee
What are Some Challenges in Your Role?
Angela, Rachel and Kara advised the trainees to work smart and provide a high level of service without getting overwhelmed, and learn how to control stressful conversations with customers while remaining professional and friendly. Be diligent about learning all of the products and services you are responsible for supporting. Lastly, be honest about what you can take on.
What is Your Advice for Someone Starting Out?
Ask a lot of questions! Know the answers or at least know where or how you can find out. Other tips include advocate for yourself, make sure the technology and resources are accessible, and take care of yourself and your emotions.
Once you are comfortable in your role and have some experience under your belt, keep your ears open for future growth opportunities. For example, Rachel started as a seasonal employee and then moved to full time. Kara started as a teller, then progressed to branch manager, and now she is in HR. Start somewhere, see what interests you, and move up. For Angela, several pathways are available including supervisor or QA engineer.
“It is invaluable for us to hear the testimonies of our blind peers who have found success in their own way and are using their experience to inspire others to do the same. It creates positive expectations and shows us the way forward.”-Anthony N., Career Launch trainee
The session closed with questions from attendees and a final discussion about the importance of cultivating empathy and working effectively in a team environment. The trainees benefited from the real-life perspectives of three customer service professionals that will assist them on their career journey.
Benetech, the parent company of Bookshare, is proud to support the Career Launch @ Perkins program because no person should experience barriers to employment due to a disability. Bookshare membership is free for all U.S. students with a qualifying visual, learning or physical disability.