Cleveland Sight Center plays vital role in securing employment for visually impaired

It was November 2008 and the Cleveland Sight Center’s board of trustees named Steven M. Friedman, Ph.D., to take the agency’s helm. Board members wanted him to build on its tradition of innovation and to expand its services — and he has.

In the few years since then, Friedman and the Sight Center staff have surpassed the board’s request time and time again.

Take, for example, the vocational services growth: In 2008, call center revenue was about $20,000; for 2015, Friedman is predicting a conservative $800,000.

“The growth in revenue is from new contracts for call center work we have been awarded since 2012 from various state of Ohio departments: Office on Tourism, Department of Health – ‘Help Me Grow’ and the Department of Education,” Friedman says. “In November 2014, we were awarded our first call center contract with Cuyahoga County.”

It all adds up to significant employment opportunities for people who are blind or who have disabilities — a segment of the population that has more than a 70 percent unemployment rate. This is despite the fact that they have capabilities that are highly valued in the workplace.

Limited funding a concern

While innovation has brought an increase in call center clients, Friedman is concerned that some services to offer help to the visually impaired are being limited. In a large part of Ohio there are no agencies offering services — and that worries him.

“This is a deep concern,” he says. “With the closing in 2012 of Columbus Vision Vocational Services, there is no agency dedicated to serving people who are blind or have low vision in the central and southeast sections of the state.”

Certain services are covered by the state, but only a few.

“The services provided by vision rehabilitation therapists — learning how to navigate with a white cane, for instance — are not paid for by traditional insurance,” Friedman says. “The state’s funding for services to people who are blind comes from Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities and focuses the limited funds on developing skills that lead to employment.”

With the trend toward less government funding and a concern for the future, under Friedman’s leadership the agency recently raised 80 percent of the funds required to renovate Cleveland Sight Center’s 60-year-old headquarters in University Circle, which will help the organization to deliver services optimally.

The agency provides vision rehabilitation, education, recreation and related support services to its clients, helping them to improve their quality of life, and to live as safely and independently as possible. It is one of the most comprehensive agencies of its kind, serving people from across the country.

In addition, the agency operates the EYE-Dea Shop, where customers may purchase aids such as magnifiers or Braille label makers.

Cleveland Sight Center opened Highbrook Lodge in 1920, the first camp in the U.S. built specifically for the blind or visually impaired. Campers can improve orientation and mobility skills, increase their ability to live independently and learn while having fun in the camp setting.

Call center success

InfoCision Management Corp., a leading teleservices company headquartered in Akron, has been using SightCenter employees for several years and greatly values the relationship.

“The SightCenter is amazing and InfoCision values the partnership very much. It’s remarkable how they are able to provide opportunities for so many,” says Samantha Wells, InfoCision senior manager of corporate communications.

“Our work with InfoCision began in 2012 with its commitment to hire 25 of our clients as customer service representatives,” Friedman says. “Since then, our partnership has grown into a business relationship that combines the technical capabilities of InfoCision with the customer service skills of our call center agents.”

Cleveland Sight Center recruits and trains prospective employees for clients who then employ them. Some clients such as InfoCision offer work at home. Communicators, the name InfoCision uses for the employees, use a voice output screen reader called Job Access With Speech (JAWS) to “read” their calling scripts. The software includes a speech synthesizer and the computer’s sound card that amplifies the text from the screen.

The communicator wears a dual headset used with the phone; one ear to listen to the donor and one ear to listen to the script via JAWS.

Those who receive a call from the communicator using this system would never know the caller was blind or visually impaired, creating a win-win situation for all involved.

“Partners in the business community are crucial, not just for the growth of our call center, but to all the work that we do — whether it is with preschoolers getting ready for kindergarten, teenagers preparing to graduate high school, working age adults starting their first job, or seniors enjoying golfing or sailing or a week at our camp,” Friedman says.

How to reach: Cleveland Sight Center, (216) 658-4575 or www.ClevelandSightCenter.org