At tollway center, blind reps listen, help callers

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William Bryant fields calls at the Illinois Tollway customer service center run by the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. | Neil Steinberg / Sun-Times

“Thank you for calling the Illinois Toll Road. My name is William. How may I help you?”

For all the times I’ve heard greetings such as the one above, this is the first time I heard it not through a phone line, not as a vexed caller, but live, in the flesh, sitting next to the person saying it: William Bryant, 49, a Marine who retired on disability.

We are in the Illinois Tollway Call Center, a large underground room divided by partitions, with 150 customer service representatives in headsets holding similar conversations, gazing at flat-screen monitors.

After nine months working here, Bryant’s assessment of his job might be unexpected.

“Enjoyable,” Bryant says. “I enjoy talking on the phone, helping out people a little bit.”

Then there is something unexpected about the call center itself. First, that it’s new — opened Nov. 1, 2013 — and in Chicago, not Mumbai, or in Texas, where some customer calls to the Illinois tollway used to go, which annoyed tollway trustees, who decided not only to keep the work in-state but spread some of it to the disabled.

“Just as important as building the roads,” said Paula Wolff, chairwoman of the Tollway Authority. “More important sometimes.”

Thus the five-year, $61 million contract for the new center went to the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired, to their near-astonishment.

“I’m amazed the tollway board was so enlightened,” said Janet Szlyk, Chicago Lighthouse president.

Not only is the center in-state, but it’s located on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, inside the UIC student center on South Halsted. Its entrance is next to the bowling alley, leading to stairs down into a lower level where a swimming pool had sat vacant for a decade after the university built a sports facility across the street.

Half of the 244 workers fielding calls to the tollway, at 800-824-7277, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends, are either blind or veterans, or both, such as Bryant, a lance corporal in the Marines when diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa.

“The violation has been dismissed, I see. I’ll make a note on your I-PASS account.”

If you’re wondering how blind people use computer screens, remember that representatives are “legally blind”— with diminished eyesight, but nevertheless able to read text blown up to 2 or 3 inches on a computer screen. Only about 15 percent of the blind have vision so diminished they can’t see light. That is also why the “The Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind,” founded in 1906, changed its name to the current mouthful in 1999.

Calls are announced in Bryant’s headset with a gentle “beep-beep-beep.” There is no standard problem to be dealt with: callers have gotten letters telling them of fines they dispute, or their credit cards have expired.

“We get various calls,” Bryant says during a break. “Some people are nice. Some people are extremely irate.”

As someone who knows what it’s like to pick up the phone and find an angry stranger, I wondered if he has tips on dealing with that second group, the irate folks.

“I try to talk calmly to them, tell them not to worry and if I can help them, I will,” he says. “When they get high, I get a little bit lower. It’s hard to argue with somebody who’s not arguing back. I have a tendency to calm my voice down, talk to them regular, maybe throw a little joke in there, just to alleviate the situation.”

“Be patient,” adds Shane Barbosa, whose eyesight was damaged by his albinism. “Let them yell. A lot of people want to vent.”

I’ll have to remember that. Better than my own snarl-an-obscenity-and-slam-the-phone-down technique. Though tollway operators can hang up on abusive callers.

“You can only take so much swearing,” said Tom Nemec, the center’s customer service manager.

Employees of the center praise the benefits of working with other visually impaired colleagues, compared to previous jobs.

“I felt more accepted here,” says Marcin Okreglak, who was born in Poland in 1987 and developed toxoplasmosis as a baby due to radiation from the Chernobyl disaster the year before. “[Other employers] weren’t as accommodating, weren’t really as understanding. You would tell them you were visually impaired, and they would take it you can’t see.”

Tollway call center operators start at $10.50 an hour, but after a year are earning $13 or $14. And yes, they are hiring, and yes, they particularly want you if you are blind or a veteran or both.

“You’re good to go. Anything else I can help you with today? Bye-bye.”

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