The blind guides

A new Israeli system allows the visually-impaired to work--and even assist others.

Itzik Gazit speaking at the company's 10th anniversary. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Itzik Gazit speaking at the company's 10th anniversary.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The next time you call your municipality’s local help and information center (“106” in popular parlance), you may be speaking to a blind person.
While society today does its best to accommodate individuals with disabilities, some things are off limits to people with certain disabilities. And until very recently, working at a 106 center was one of the 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 the country. Having successfully developed the world’s first help center system accessible to 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 you call when you want to complain about the trash not being picked up, to make an appointment about 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 the 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.
To do their jobs properly, 106 staff need to be on the ball, prioritizing and forwarding requests to the appropriate departments. A great deal of the work is visual, though – pressing the right buttons, checking off menu selections, and the like. It would likely never have occurred to Gazit to consider blind people for such a job had it not been for a phone call from a young woman doing her national service. She 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 and decided 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 to become a symbol of social equality and responsibility.”
Of course, this was easier said than done.
“I started working on the project three years ago, but I didn’t realize how involved it would be,” recalls Gazit. There was a need to redefine and retool some of the most basic aspects of interaction with the call center system 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,” he 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, which provided partial funding.
“We worked with a group of programmers for over a year and a half just to get it right,” he says, and after much testing, the system was declared ready just a few months ago. It 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 it, and an organized course to train the first 20 workers is set for September. And with the system almost ready for prime time, Gazit is considering ways to expand it to help the blind in other industries, and 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,” he says. “But I expect there to be a great deal of interest in the system once information about it gets out.”
Indeed, although he 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.
Meanwhile, blind workers in municipalities and local authorities in Israel will the first to benefit from Gazit’s project.
“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.”