The Blind Secretary-Receptionist: An Office Guide to Non-Visual Techniques

JOB Employer's Bulletin / 1998

Are you looking for one of these?

SECRETARY/RECEPTIONIST: A motivated self-starter with a pleasant phone voice; demonstrated success in working on multiple tasks to meet deadlines. Duties include general secretarial tasks (sort mail, file, dictation), extensive travel arranging, and scheduling. Must type 50+ wpm, present a good appearance and deal well with a sometimes difficult public. Must be proficient in ____ [name your computer system]. Occasional evenings/weekends.

Would you hire a blind secretary for this job? How about a blind receptionist or office clerk?

Businessman icon: 'Wait a minute. That doesn't make sense! There's no way a blind person can do this job. This is one of those foolish 'everybody's equal' things that go overboard. I know this job, and I couldn't do it if I were blind!'

Of course you couldn't. You haven't had training in blind techniques. However, an executive secretary we know, a woman who is totally blind, has worked very successfully for several different companies in Colorado, Maryland, and Missouri. She is consistently rated 'outstanding' on her performance reviews. Currently, she is working as a medical transcriptionist for a firm which has a standing offer to her to locate more blind persons with her skills. Here is what she and others like her told JOB about a few of their non-visual techniques:

AIRLINE TICKETS

Mrs. H: I call our travel agency to order tickets and set up the car rentals. When the tickets arrive by messenger, if there are only one or two, I ask the messenger to read the important data to me while I compare it to my Braille notes. If there are multiple tickets or complications, I go over the data with my reader.

For UPS, Postal Express, flower shop deliveries, or such, I'll usually ask the messenger to identify the recipient of the package before I'll sign any receipt form. Then I use common sense and company policy to decide how fast to deliver the package to the correct staff member.

TYPING LETTERS, MEMOS, AND REPORTS

Mrs. H: It varies. I can work from direct dictation using my portable notetaker keyboard or type directly on my office computer or take down Braille shorthand or'my favorite method'work from dictaphone tapes. With dictaphone tapes, my boss's thinking time and revisions won't slow me down.
I have no problem filling out pre-printed forms after I make myself a Braille template, but it's more efficient to fill out forms on the computer.

PROOFREADING

Mrs. H: I'm a good typist so I usually know when I've hit a wrong key. Spellcheck helps, of course. Then, with my voice output device attached to my office computer, I can listen to it read back to me what I have typed: either word-by-word or letter-by-letter.

If I type "The" it can say, "Capital-T-h-e-space" and so on. Beyond that, my office has always required that a second person proofread whatever the first person types before the material leaves our office. In every office I've worked in, my boss proofreads my copy before signing it. I expect my bosses to be just as hard on my errors as with any other staff person and, I am glad to say, I miss very few errors.

FILING PAPERS

Miss L: I always preserve the print marking systems used in my office because others in the office are print-dependent. For myself, I keep looking for techniques that work to maximize my liberation from print.

Remember the "80-20 Rule'"? It generally works out that only 20 percent of something tends to be the essential part that is used the most often. For example, in most offices, only 20 percent of your files at any one time are in constant use. Those are the files I, as the secretary, will label. If my boss asks me to retrieve the letter she received from John Smith on May 8, last year, I can retrieve it in less than four minutes. If the file is from before I began work here, I will ask the other secretary to retrieve it. We often help each other out.

For the files I keep in my office, I Braille the folder's name on 3x5 cards, then staple the card upside down on the back of the folder label area (or consistently on some other chosen spot on the back of the folder).

Mrs. G: The card is upside down because fingers will easily curl over the top of the file to the back of the label. It just doesn't work to staple the Braille label to the front.

Mr. B: I put Braille labels on the front tab of file folders, but only 2 or 3 words will fit. Occasionally I Braille words on a product called Dymotape, which is a clear, plastic, half-inch-wide tape with a sticky back. Print labels can be read underneath the plastic Braille dots. The tape sticks on metal cabinets, paper folders, and plastic report covers. I place Braille Dymotape labels on the vertical file drawers too.

I like to open a file in my computer which lists the names and contents of each folder. For 'hot' files that I use a lot, I may place a sheet inside at the front of each folder which lists the folder's contents in Braille.

[Sidebar] It is our belief that equal opportunity is the opportunity to succeed or to fail based on one's own efforts, not society's preconceptions. This applies to the hiring process and the job itself. Equality is supported by the flexibility of the employer and of the employee to use 'reasonable' accommodation for some of the tasks that would otherwise be done with a sighted technique. [End sidebar]

Businesswoman icon: 'How will he know what the print says so that he can Braille the label correctly?'

WHEN IS A SIGHTED "READER" NEEDED?

Mrs. H: Good question! Sometimes there is no cheap substitute or any substitute for sight. A blind friend of mine calls mystery print items, "UPOs" for Unidentified Print Objects. We will need some print read to us by what we call 'a reader' before we can apply these blind techniques, but less often than the sighted would think.

Mrs. G: What a lot of employers don't grasp when blind persons apply for office jobs, is that this is not always and necessarily a monstrous, time-consuming, and expensive proposition. Where there is a will, there is often a way. My alternative techniques for a variety of office jobs have not led to more expense for my company than is received back in value from my work.

Dr. A: (This blind university professor uses the same practical method for dealing with "UPOs" that is used by many blind secretaries.) Usually our first task is sorting what needs to be attended to quickly, what can wait, and what is junk and is going to be thrown out summarily. Anything I'm not going to attend to immediately or anything that I think I'll need to find myself, I try to label in Braille.

Miss L: I Braille and type "locator numbers" on 3x5 cards. My reader takes them, a tape recorder, and a stack of print documents (letters, airplane tickets, in-coming mail, staff memos, reports) to the conference room each morning. As she reads into the tape recorder the information I need off of each document, she will affix one card to each item and use that number as the key to each of her descriptions.

Mrs. G: It's different when I start a new job than it is later when I have it set up. At first, I will likely use some additional time outside of regular office hours, in the evenings or on weekends, to label files I "inherit" and to work out my systems. Once I have my plan in place, I batch my reading tasks. It's best to schedule my reader at the same time each day. The goal is to function more independently but also to make efficient use of my time. This means that occasionally I will need more reading help, and sometimes I will need less.

If the boss wants a file that I cannot find, I have her permission to request help from a sighted co-worker. This same co-worker will read any "mystery print" messages that I find dropped on my desk after lunch or breaks. This takes very little of her time. There is no resentment because I often take messages for her and assist her in other ways.

WHO HIRES THE READER? FOR HOW MANY HOURS OF WORK?

JOB: This is not set in stone (or in law). In many cases, a sighted clerk in the office is assigned a set number of hours for the provision of reading assistance to the blind secretary. In others, a part-time worker is hired by the employer for minimum wage and no benefits. In other cases, the blind office worker will pay for her own readers. Generally, the higher on the pay scale a blind person works, the more reader time will be supplied by the company. Blind adults who use readers know how to train someone to do this job. In general, it is best to give the blind person 'veto power' over who the reader will be, because not everyone who can read will do a good, efficient job reading aloud.

THE BLIND RECEPTIONIST, A true story...

Last summer, as part of her training while learning to handle her blindness at a special summer camp, a totally blind high school girl was placed as a part-time (unpaid, "work-study") receptionist on the front desk for a large retirement center and nursing home. As a reader read the print, she Brailled the complete list of telephone extensions the night before she started her job. She memorized the names and extension numbers of nearly all 20 staff persons as she Brailled them. In her first 4-hour shift, she learned to run the 5-line switchboard plus the fax machine.

By Brailling incoming messages she always read the right message to the correct person. She kept track of who was in or out with Braille notes. She used a typewriter to type print copies of messages when necessary and delivered them to the correct staff mailboxes thanks to her Braille nameplates. When she heard the fax machine delivering a message, she'd retrieve it. She'd ask the first staff person passing the switchboard to read whose name was on the fax, and then she'd deliver the fax.

Her excellent telephone manners, promptness, and efficiency in getting messages to staff and residents (through paging, voice mail, or paper messages) were joined to her blind techniques, her common sense, and her positive, pleasant personality. She did so well that when one of the home's sighted receptionists quit, the home hired her at the standard salary through the rest of the summer.

WHAT ELSE CAN YOUR BLIND SECRETARY DO?

Create flowcharts * Greet important visitors * Straighten and clean reception areas * Maintain the office calendar * Set appointments * Make coffee and serve refreshments to guests * Set up a booth at a trade fair and hawk the products * Write copy for a newsletter, and include pictures or illustrations * Teach office routines to new staff * Give directions to meeting rooms and offices * Use a computer to create good layout for a newsletter * Follow-up on supply orders with sellers * Set up conference rooms for meetings * Handle petty cash * Supervise volunteers * Use high speed copiers * Use the fax machine * Be enthusiastic about working * Be reliable, dependable, and prompt * Much, much more.

WHAT CAN YOUR BLIND SECRETARY NOT DO?

Drive...1 * Transcribe handwritten material...2

1 ...but non-drivers can hire drivers or use public transportation.

2 ...but typed or printed material can be scanned into a computer which is accessible to your secretary.

All of us have areas of greater strength and of weakness. In addition to this variation, some blind persons have no sight, while others have enough sight that they will use it for some office tasks. Do all of your sighted secretaries do all of your tasks equally well?

THE BOTTOM LINE

Why is hiring a competent blind secretary a logical way to do business?

The best secretaries are able to think. Office skills are only part of what's needed. Beyond that, you surely hope to find common sense, a talent for efficiency, some physical endurance, a pleasant personality, and a sense of humor, flexibility, and ingenuity. These abilities are independent of sight or lack of sight. If the best candidate to apply for your position is blind while the other less-well-trained candidates are sighted, you will still have the best deal for your money, even after you include the cost of a reader and any other adaptations. (Other adaptations may include a voice-output device to make the office computer system accessible.) Any boss who has hired secretaries knows a good one is worth a degree of flexibility on the part of the business. We encourage you to apply that flexibility to the consideration of blind candidates.