Any organization, large or small, non-profit or for-profit, needs to be competitive and constantly adjust to changing demands. The people involved in those organizations need to always be updating their skills and knowledge, as well, so their work produces added value in any setting. Adaptation, evolution and growth are all keys to success these days.
For organizations, technology has become a vehicle to develop and increase their business efficiency. For individuals with disabilities, assistive technology has become a means to develop and increase their potential. However, the likelihood of 100% compatibility among different technologies is slim. It is better to say that incredible technical implementations happen thanks to the effort of exceptional professionals. The question is, how do they do it?
Technology Equals Freedom
A company initiative at Northwest Airlines (NWA) in its Baltimore, Maryland Reservations Center included upgrading reservations software and searching for tools to help sales agents who are visually impaired perform their jobs. The assistive technology tool selected was JAWS, which is a screen reader developed by Freedom Scientific and stands for “Job Access With Speech.” Janet Corey, NWA Reservations Sales Agent assigned to assist with the project, worked with the technical staff on improving the compatibility between JAWS and the new reservations system
The success of a new technical solution relies on user satisfaction. JAWS and the new reservations system needed user acceptance testing before being deployed. Monica Venesky, who is visually impaired, joined NWA as a Reservation Sales Agent in 1997. She was the agent designated for user acceptance testing.
Corey and Venesky worked together to improve areas where the tool performed inconsistently. Their goal was to provide a stable and reliable tool to all agents who are visually impaired. According to Venesky, all the iterations she worked on now allow her and others to compete on equal terms with their sighted peers.
The two women brought different strengths to the testing process—strengths that complemented one another. Corey contributed her business knowledge and training skills; Venesky translated the business function into the field of individuals who are visually impaired. She replicated what Corey saw on the screen by using her fingers, a braille display, her ears, and JAWS.
Jon Swenson Tellekson, Director of Speech Recognition at Freedom of Speech, Inc., an assistive technology vendor based in Edina, Minnesota, explains that it’s a challenge for JAWS to read information that is in different windows on the screen. However, it is possible to write scripts that allow JAWS to read the different windows. Both Corey and Venesky agree that the success of this project was due to the fast response and dedication of software designers who worked to iron out the kinks.
The efforts of this team paid off as the project entered its last phase. Venesky prepared braille handouts that duplicated the screens. The reservation agents received a headset that provided input from JAWS in one ear and the customer’s voice in the other.
Tom Venesky, Monica’s husband, also visually impaired, was the first agent Janet and Monica trained. Tom joined NWA in 1994. He remembers that his first assistive technology “tool” was the agent next to him. This agent acted as a voice synthesizer by whispering information from the screen into Tom’s ear. He got a braille display later and eventually a software program that read the screen back to him line by line.
After being trained in JAWS and the new reservations package in 2000, Tom found it easier to navigate the screens. Another benefit was the user-friendliness and increased speed of the tools. With the old system, Tom had to type different commands to find information. With the new system, he simply had to point and click!
Corey and Venesky also used a “train the trainer” approach. This worked well in locations like New York where several reservation agents needed training. One agent trained was Marc Simitian, who achieved the Summit Club membership in 1998 and 1999 for selling $1 million in direct ticket revenue. Simitian had been very happy with the old system. He knew it so well that learning the same job with different tools was sometimes frustrating to him, but he chose to take a positive attitude and it helped him learn the new system. “I don’t like change,” he said. But as he learned, he understood the potential benefits beyond improved technology. It was easier to communicate with other departments now because everyone used the same system.
Carlos Gomez, another reservations agent, agrees with Simitian about relearning the job. Imagine having your computer screen divided into four quadrants. The tricky part is that depending on what quadrant is active, a command may take you to a place you didn’t expect. And remember, you have JAWS talking to you in one ear and the customer talking to you in the other. It’s mental gymnastics at its best.
The Next Phase
Economic downturn in 2001 caused drastic changes for the call center in New York. It was eventually closed. Reservation agents considered relocation to other cities throughout the United States. Only one thought came to mind for Simitian and Gomez: both had worked so hard to achieve what they had and now they were back to square one.
For Simitian, relocation meant different things. He had to leave the city where he had spent all of his life, learn new independent living skills, adjust to the Baltimore call center, and learn the reservation system all over again. The ability to ask for help from trainers and technical staff made the transition smooth, and after six months in the Baltimore reservation center, Simitian feels optimistic that he can achieve Summit Club membership again.
Gomez also relocated to Baltimore. For him, NWA had been a great employer in New York. He appreciates the efforts of his employer and his co-workers. “It’s a learning experience for everybody,” he said.
Lisa Todd, NWA Senior Accommodation Assessment Advisor in Minneapolis, leads a quarterly discussion on accessible travel and employment. This year the focus is on career planning for people with disabilities in a changing workplace. Each employee writes his/her own development plan, and then determines the tools needed to make it happen. As technology improves and new products appear on the market, this story will repeat itself over and over. Claire Bradley, Regional Director Reservation Operations, comments on the importance of having the right people working on a technology project. “It becomes a journey,” said Bradley, “An ongoing process. As an employer, we look for tools that can help our people, and we try to keep up with technology. We want to make it work. We want to be the employer of choice.”
The formula for success in this story was having managers, trainers, technical staff, vendors, and reservation agents working together. They created opportunities for themselves and for others. Each of them had a piece of the puzzle and a can-do attitude that followed the path of change
In the meantime, the Veneskys, Simitian, and Gomez share their accomplishments and hope that others will feel motivated. Their advice to others is to have a goal. There is no reason you can’t do whatever you want to do. Overcome challenges and enjoy rewards. “Our job is doable,” says Venesky. “Leave a legacy.”