The B.P.O. sector in India has seen tremendous growth, and is poised to grow even further. The doors of a new job opportunity have begun to open for persons with visual impairment and blindness. So why aren't more of them walking through them? Anjali Sen Gupta investigates
Muthu, a blind telemarketeer, is thrilled at being recognised as the best achiever in his company. He works at the Call Centre of Third Wave Teleservices, a Bangalore-based franchisee of Tata Indicom along with 12 other visually impaired and seven non-disabled colleagues.
Muthu might never have had the opportunity to prove himself if Mr. P.B. Thimayya, Managing Director of Third Wave Teleservices, hadn't hired him in the first place. Mr. Thimayya saw the opportunity for employing visually challenged persons when he met Mr. M. Srinivas, Chief Employment Officer, National Association for the Blind (NAB), Bangalore, when the latter was campaigning for their cause. Mr. Thimayya admits that initially he tried to place blind people in larger call centres but met with several roadblocks. "Then I realised that if I don't take the initiative, it'll be difficult to convince others." Since then, he has hired more than 25 visually impaired persons in his Call Centre.
Can Third Wave Teleservices' success with employing visually impaired persons be replicated on an industry-wide scale?
Some B.P.O. companies have started looking closely at visually impaired persons as a resource due to their perceived 'staying power'. In an interview published on www.indianngos.com, Ms. Aparna Sanjay, Manager, Community Initiatives, MphasiS BFL Limited, says, "We looked at the recruitment of persons with disability as a strictly business proposition. The attrition rate in the B.P.O. sector is very high. So all of us are looking at non-traditional recruitment. While some companies recruit ex-servicemen, others may hire only housewives to cut down the attrition. We decided to look at persons with disability. I t is believed that the differently-abled stay at the same place of work for longer."
But before they can stick on in a BPO, visually impaired persons need to get into one. And that is not proving easy.
Mr. Raman Roy, widely acknowledged as the 'father of B.P.O.s' in India, feels that there are tremendous opportunities but a lack of training is holding back visually impaired persons. "I struggled with this issue in a company I worked in. We used to hire people by the thousand at one time," he says, "so I thought we should also hire some visually impaired people. But my training arm did not have the competency and capability to train this resource. When I took up the matter with my trainers, I found that they did not know how to effectively train visually impaired employees."
"We need the first few companies that can demonstrate it can be done, and done successfully." He feels a "catalytic event" could be 'pre-training'. Take, for instance, work on accent. If visually impaired people are available as "pre-trained resources", they would probably be snapped up by the industry.
Some NGOs have stepped forward to fill this gap. The National Association for the Blind (N.A.B.) Karnataka has recently set up a call centre on its premises where visually impaired persons who have undergone training, are being given on-the-job experience. The Chennai Regional Centre of National Institute for the Visually Handicapped (N.I.V.H.) - an autonomous body under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India - has been training visually impaired people for the last one year for call centre work and for over five years for medical transcriptions.
Bangalore-based EnAble India which offers pre-employment training to disabled persons usually includes orientation to B.P.O.s -- what it means, expectations, environment, challenges, stress, importance of domain understanding, types of jobs and how they are done by persons with disability.
But the B.P.O. industry is notorious for a high burn-out rate owing to its demanding work schedule. Can visually impaired people cope up with such a stressful and exacting work environment? " The biggest challenge. is to suitably motivate the candidates for this kind of work," says Mr. A.K. Mittal, Regional Director, N.I.V.H.R.C. "There has to be a definite shift in the attitudes and mental make-up. Visually impaired persons need to be mentally prepared for a job which does not have any in-built elements of security, as in a government or P.S.U. job."
Ms. Shanti Raghavan, Founder and Managing Trustee of EnAble India, also currently Employment Officer, seconds this, "A tough attitude is required. Some jobs which I have identified for visually impaired people (such as verifiers) require working for 14 hours straight -- this is extremely difficult for people who do not have the right attitude. If they have been aspiring for a government job -- because that is all he or she is aware of while growing up -- they are not prepared to face the culture in a B.P.O. Some jobs require sales skills which needs a very tough attitude to keep hitting your targets on a daily basis."
Mr. Roshan Rajan, a visually impaired person who is a voice and accent trainer at 24/7 in Bangalore feels that visually impaired persons are up to the challenge, " The non-disabled tend to underestimate the potential we possess. The challenges that visually impaired people face in this industry are infinite," but "a strong mind, willpower to do anything and self-confidence" will see one through anything.
Mr. Prasanto Kumar Roy, President and Chief Editor of Cyber Media Publications, feels a call centre environment might be difficult to handle for visually impaired or blind people due to the technical complexities of the job. "All the information is screen-based, and if the computer has JAWS (a software that reads out text on the screen), then that executive is listening to two things at the same time - the client and the JAWS readout. It becomes slower. Theoretically, we could play the JAWS voice back, but that might sound strange to the caller. Plus, it is difficult incorporating this into an already complicated software architecture." But the BPO industry offers many other kinds of jobs apart from a Call Centre situation. Medical transcription is one such task where a person has to hear a tape and transcribe it.
Transtek, a company that does medical transcription work for doctors in the US, has had very encouraging results with visually impaired persons. The company provided training to six boys of Ramakrishna Mission Blind Boys' Academy, Narendrapur. "They are just too good. Their skills are no less than a sighted person," says trainer Archan Haldar. A doctor taught the students once a week about the human body.
"We want to continue this project but with corporate sponsorships in future to cover the costs," said Sudarshan Bagri, Managing Director, Transtek.
The cost aspect has a bearing on the hiring of visually impaired persons and cannot be ignored. Ms. Raghavan tries to work out the approximate cost involved in hiring a visually impaired person. "JAWS software would cost Rs. 55,000 for blind employees. For low vision, if the company does not have Windows 2K or XP with maginifier installed, they will need to buy Windows XP so that magnifier can be used. Add another Rs. 2,000 to 3,000 for training material in Braille, audio or large font. This could be more expensive depending on the volume of material. If conversion from images is required, it would also require somebody's time and effort. If the company is willing and if it is required, minor accessibility modifications to software for compatibility with JAWS could be made. I don't know the cost; it could be perhaps Rs. 10,000 or more. This would be, however, a one-time effort. An ideal (but impractical!) cost would be for a refreshable Braille display." "These are all within the realms of possibility," declares Mr. Mittal. "The cost may not be too high in terms of the development of, and productive contribution from, vision impaired employees. Yet, it would be unrealistic to state that the cost would be negligible."
"Accommodations or adaptations need not be costly. The simplest and least costly modifications to the work environment make a blind employee much more productive," says Vivek Dayal, Director, Corporate Communications, MphasiS . "For example, putting Braille markings on the keypad may enable the blind employee to use the machine as fast and effectively as anybody else. What is most important to mention here is that continuous re-evaluation of accommodations and adaptations is a 'must'."
Some people feel putting Braille markings on keypads may help. But a keypad is anyway called a 'blind system' because once the operator memorises the keys, she/he does not look down while typing. It will be the same with a blind operator. In any case, it would be wrong to assume that every blind person knows Braille.
Mr. Raman Roy feels spending money, say, on software or modifications, is not the issue. "We have not crossed even the first hurdle yet, which is that for good trained resources, whose skill levels are at par with those of non-disabled colleagues, the industry needs competent trainers. Infrastructure is the second big hurdle. In fact, the trainers themselves would be able to suggest the kind of changes required. And even if those changes cost Rs. 10 lakh, they are worth it."
Whatever the reason -- corporate social responsibility and the desire to be seen as 'socially responsible citizens', the willingness to increase diversity in the workplace, or the need to retain employees who are likely to stay with a job once they are hired -- one thing seems to be constant. As the B.P.O. industry grows in India, its continued human resources needs makes it likely that more visually impaired and blind people will be able to find employment in this field.
As both the industry and training institutes interact further, the future can only seem brighter for the educated visually impaired and blind hopefuls who are only too keen to prove their capabilities in the job market that has begun to open its doors to them.