“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
— from Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See
Nehemiah Jenkins has been blind since he was 10 years old. Loss of his sight meant giving up his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a police officer.
Nehemiah is one of the 3.5 million visually impaired Americans of working age. Although he wasn’t able to pursue his dream of becoming a cop, Nehemiah is more fortunate than the 70 percent of working age blind Americans who are unemployed. Nehemiah works as an agent at the SYKES Lakeland Florida call center.
Belo Cipriani, author of Blind: A Memoir writes, “One major reason blind people struggle to find employment is that public misconceptions of the blind affect hiring managers’ perceptions of potential candidates who are visually impaired.”
This is a difficulty both Nehemiah and his fellow Lakeland colleague, Dale Barefoot, who lost his sight in 1995, have experienced. “When you walk in with a stick [white cane], they are doubting,” Dale says. “They are asking ‘what can he do?’ And they don’t know.”
Since SYKES hired Dale and Nehemiah, they have shattered misperceptions about the capabilities of the visually impaired. Both are among the top-performing agents at Lakeland.
“Dale and Nehemiah do a great job, both performing in the top 10 percent,” says Amy Deaton, their account manager. “Dale has an average of 97 percent QA score for the past three months and Nehemiah has a three month average of 96 percent.”
Nehemiah is grateful. “SYKES gave me a chance,” he says. Adds Dale, “People with disabilities are grateful for every day they work.”
Both Nehemiah and Dale work with a SYKES client that helps financially challenged homeowners navigate their budget problems and, whenever possible, help them avoid mortgage foreclosure.
This means that both men are often on the phone with people in crisis, whose circumstances have made them angry or afraid.
“Callers are really upset,” says Nehemiah. “Some are crying. They are all looking for help.”
Dale says empathy and compassion are key to calming the callers down enough to get basic information from them required to help. “I look at the callers I talk to as if they were my family. Some of these callers are older. I think of my relatives who are 87 years old. You have to remember that some of these customers have no where else to go for help.”
Both Dale and Nehemiah obtain information from callers to help determine if they qualify for assistance programs offered by the client. The agents must follow a script and enter the responses onto their computers.
In this task they are assisted by JAWS.
No, not the great white shark that terrorized vacationing bathers off the shore of Amity Island. That JAWS ate commuters. This JAWS aids computers. JAWS stands for “Job Access With Speech.” JAWS enables people with vision loss to navigate a computer without being able to see the screen or use a mouse. JAWS is a screen reader, verbalizing both the script and navigation instructions for vision-impaired users.
For Dale and Nehemiah, this means listening to JAWS reading their script to them and telling them how to navigate the computer (using the number pad on their keyboard). While this is going on in one ear, they listen to frantic callers in the other ear—and then establish the best processes to get the callers help asap.
“I call it karaoke,” laughs Nehemiah.
Just about everyone else might call it impossible multi-tasking.
“It’s like doing three jobs at the same time, while for someone who is sighted it is one,” says Dale.
“The information comes at you at 90 miles per hour,” Dale continues. “You just learn it. It’s a ‘wanna’ thing, you gotta want to do it.”
Nehemiah agrees. “I just want to work. I just want to have my own,” he says.
SYKES Lakeland is active in the visually impaired community in central Florida. Fran Harrington, Site Director for SYKES Lakeland, is a huge advocate for connecting SYKES support for the Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that provides training services to help those who have lost their vision perform daily living tasks independently and maintain their employment. SYKES Lakeland has also hosted a career day for visually-impaired students, complete with mock interviews to help get them ready for career-seeking.
Both Dale and Nehemiah are well liked and respected by their peers. Their experience at SYKES dispels many of the common myths that persist in the workplace about hiring the vision impaired, such as having a higher absentee rate. Both have superior attendance records. Another is a common but simple misperception – that blind people will need help getting around the office.
Nehemiah tells of the time power was knocked out at the center by a severe Florida thunderstorm. He and Dale were the ones leading fellow employees around the call center floor in the dark.
Nehemiah’s philosophy is, “If you have to do it, you can do it.”
Dale puts it like this: “You’ve got to make it the best way you can in this world. The world isn’t going to stop for you.”
From the results they produce and the esteem they’ve earned from peers and management alike, it’s clear that Dale and Nehemiah are more than making their way in the world. They are leading the way.