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The next time you call your local municipality’s local help and information center (“106” in popular parlance, referring to the municipality-sponsored phone number you dial for assistance in your town), be aware that you may be speaking to a blind person. Of course, society today does its best to accommodate individuals with disabilities (more properly termed “challenged,”) but we realize there are some things that are off limits to people with certain disabilities. And until very recently, working at a “106” was one of those things that were off-limits to the blind.

Not anymore, though – thanks to the efforts of a company called CRMC, which operates 106 help and information centers in over 100 towns and cities across Israel. And now, having successfully developed the world’s first help center system that can be used by the blind, CRMC chairman Itzik Gazit is expecting an eventual tidal wave of requests for help in developing similar systems from organizations all over the world.

For the past decade, CRMC has been developing the systems that you call when you want to complain about the trash not being picked up, to ask if you can make an appointment with the person in charge of assigning your kid to a specific kindergarten, or to report a cat up a tree. The people answering the phones accept your call and record your request and contact information; they then transfer the request to the appropriate department, and follow up with you to ensure that your issue was resolved. By streamlining the contact process, says Gazit, municipalities and local authorities can concentrate on solving problems and raise the level of service they provide.

In order to do their jobs properly, 106 staff need to be “on the ball,” prioritizing and forwarding requests to the appropriate department. A great deal of the work is visual, though; pressing the right buttons, checking off men selections, and the like. The worker needs to focus in on the client’s needs and forward to the request quickly, for safety and administrative reasons, of course – and maybe for political reasons as well, at least just a little. As we on the “giving” end know, our problem is the most important one and needs to be dealt with right away – and if it isn’t, the mayor is going to hear about it at election time!

It’s unlikely that the idea of hiring blind people to do this job would have occurred to Gazit had it not been for a phone call from a young lady doing her National Service (Sherut Leumi) duty who had been assigned to work for a local authority – but was unable to work in the town’s help and information center because of her blindness. Gazit thought about it, he says, and decide that something should – and could – be done. “I believe it is our moral obligation to enable all people, including those who are challenged, to find their place in the social fabric. And one of the most important aspects of that social fabric is the workplace,” Gazit says. “I see no reason why blind individuals cannot contribute to their workplace like anyone else, and I am happy to have been able to allow municipalities and local authorities become a symbol of social equality and responsibility.”

It’s a lovely sentiment, but easier said than done. “I started working on the project three years ago, but I didn’t realize how involved it would be,” says Gazit. There was a need to take some of the most basic aspects of interaction with the call center system and redefine and retool them to make them accessible to blind users. “We couldn’t take anything for granted, as there is a large gulf between the way the seeing and the blind handle tasks,” Gazit says.

Naturally, such a venture was expensive; after an exhaustive search, Gazit realized that nothing like this had been attempted before, and he started looking around for partners to help finance the project. The only organization that expressed interest was the National Insurance Institute (Bituach Leumi), which provided partial funding. “We worked with a group of programers for over a year and a half just to get it right,” says Gazit, and after much testing, the system was declared ready just a few months ago, and was officially inaugurated in a special ceremony on July 7.

The system is essentially a screen reader adapted for telephone use, consisting of a software application that provides blind operators with braille-interpreted screen choices, so they route the call where it is needed. The screen reader allows operators to say the name of the department into a microphone connected to the system, and then presents the choices on the screen on a Braille output device.

Now, CRMC is training several blind workers in using the system as the pioneers who will help test the system, and an organized course to train the first twenty workers is set for September.  And now that the system is almost ready for prime time, Gazit is considering ways to expand it in order to help the blind in other industries – even in other countries. “Of course we want to test it out here first to ensure that it works properly before we begin ‘exporting’ it to other organizations,” says Gazit. “But I expect there to be a great deal of interest in the system once information about it gets out.” And in fact, although Gazit hasn’t begun advertising the system’s capabilities yet, at least one large international organization that works with the blind has expressed interest in working with CRMC.

For now, blind workers in municipalities and local authorities in Israel will the first to benefit from Gazit’s project. And for Gazit, it’s as much about helping the blind as it is about getting staff for 106 lines. “Eventually we hope to have blind workers in all the 130 municipalities and local authorities we work with,” he says. “Even if each town hires just one person, that’s 130 more people who have a livelihood. For me, that’s worth the investment.”

 

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