disability awareness

How Effectively Does Your Company Engage with Disabled Customers?

Lois uberI’m often surprised at how unaware customer service agents are when assisting people with disabilities. They often make assumptions about what I can and cannot do – like assuming that, because I can’t see, that I can’t sign my own name… or create an invoice for work that I’ve done for them, or type in my credit card code to approve a payment. Come on, people – I’m only blind!

I guess that’s a little unfair of me – after all, is it fair to expect them to know what is and is not possible for someone who’s blind, especially since we’re all different and have different strengths and abilities. So, yes, I guess it’s hard for a customer service agent to make a call on what assistance to offer.

On the other hand, surely it makes sense for organisations to provide at least some basic training for their employees who may come into contact with customers who live with a disability? Because it appears to me that a frighteningly small number of companies in South Africa do so.

Over the past few months I’ve been involved in customer service training projects for two large organisations, Vodacom and Uber. In each case the aim of the project was to develop a training video to demonstrate how to engage with a blind person with a guide dog. Neither video segment was long or complex. However, I’d be willing to bet that both will provide a valuable tool for customer service training in the future.

Of course, one has to ask the question of whether there is a need to train staff in how to engage with the disabled community – after all, how many disabled people are they likely to come into contact with? A recent article in Disabled World lists the number of people in Africa living with a disability at around 10%. Isn’t it in the interests of every company to provide basic training to their employees on how to engage effectively with these potential customers?

The image shows my guide dog Fiji and I with the team responsible for shooting the Uber Assist video.

Contact me to find out more about how your company could make their customer service agents more effective when engaging with blind and visually impaired customers. Let’s start the conversation…

What Happened to September?

I was totally stunned to realize that today is the 4th October. Last time I posted an article was late in August, which leaves me with the question of what happened to September?

In reality, September has been a busy month and I have tons to share with you. I have several experiences and observations from my recent travels as a blind tourist in Poland, as well as updates on my speaking and writing. I also have a few articles about changes in my life that have given me a greater degree of independence.

September may have slipped by without my noticing it… But I promise normal transmissions will resume this month!

Yes, I Know I Don’t Drink Beer, But…

Cds IMG 3080Considering I do not drink beer, a brewery tour might sound like an unusual way for me to spend an evening. But that’s exactly what I did two weeks ago. Craig, a few friends and I toured the SAB Newlands Brewery… and what an experience it was!

I’m not going to dwell on how the beer is made, nor how the Newland’s plant keeps the process environmentally and cost effective – if you want to know that, you should visit the Brewery yourself. This is purely about my experience of touring the plant as a blind person.

On arrival, Craig and I were given a comprehensive briefing on what we could expect during the tour and what potential risks we might encounter. I know the safety officers had to give special permission for me to take my white cane on the tour with me – this was one occasion that leaving Fiji at home was definitely the right thing to do! We also had to sign a disclaimer protecting SAB against any injury sustained on the tour, but so did everyone else, so it wasn’t just because I am blind.

Generally I found the tour fairly easy to navigate. We climbed up and down staircases and walked from one area of the plant to the next as the guide explained the beer-making process. At no time did I feel unsafe or overly rushed and our tour group accommodated the presence of a blind woman without difficulty.

Then we entered the bottling area. Huge machines were busy washing, filling and stacking bottles and there was so much noise we had to don our headphones, both to protect our ears and to allow us to hear our guide’s explanation of the process.

Considering that 2.2 million units of beer are produced by Newlands Brewery every day, (bearing in mind they still bring in extra beer to meet Cape Town’s daily consumption), I guess the noise was to be expected – they could hardly shut off the line while we walked through. But let me explain the experience from my perspective:

There I was standing on an elevated walkway without sight, with the pounding of the machines making my hearing useless, and the design of the walkway making it impossible for me to feel my way with my white stick… I felt totally isolated, totally powerless and totally unable to move. I just stood there frozen on that walkway.

My blind friend, Chris, compares that feeling as being like having a bag thrown over your head, your hands tied and then being tossed into the back of a steel van and being powerless to protect yourself as you are thrown from one side of the van to the other. That might sound a little extreme, but having no ability to use any of your senses is petrifying.

Thankfully Craig helped me by placing my clutching hands onto secure handholds and helping me find my way, step by step, over the walkway and down the steps on the other side… but it was a close call. Mind you, staying where I was was hardly an option – I had to either go forward or back, didn’t I?

After the tour we sampled a few of the SAB beers produced by the Newlands Brewery and had a chance to chat to the other people on tour with us, which rounded the evening off well.

There is no way that anyone with mobility challenges could take the tour – the number of staircases and the elevated walkway would be insurmountable for someone in a wheelchair. However, the tour is not problematic for someone who is blind and, if all the guides are as knowledgeable as ours was, there will be sufficient detailed information to make sense of the process being described. Definitely an interesting experience, even for someone who does not drink beer… and yes, I still don’t drink beer!

Braving the Paving –Learning New Skills carefully

It’s been a while since I posted a lesson from my new-ish guide dog, Fiji. So here is another one.

Learning a new route with Fiji is a lot like learning a new skill. In both cases I experience a similar feeling of anxiety – perhaps I’m not doing it right, perhaps something might go wrong and I’ll land up making an irretrievable error(have you ever felt that way?). As a result of that anxiety I find myself working slowly and methodically through the brand new process/skill/route because it is unfamiliar to me.

Once that new process becomes more familiar I start to speed up and move more confidently through the task.

Recently one of the houses in our neighbourhood paved over a very uneven patch of the grass sidewalk. For several weeks we had to skirt round the obstacle by walking in the road, often with the assistance of the guys doing the work as it is a busy intersection. A few days ago we got to walk on the paving for the first time.

In the long run I’m sure we will be grateful for that wonderful flat paved walkway. However, our first few experiences have been just like learning that new skill – we’ve walked very slowly and carefully over the unfamiliar route… just in case.

And it was a good thing that we did, because on our second trip over the paving my foot slipped off the sidewalk onto the road. I was somewhat startled because Fiji is usually very good at keeping me safely on the sidewalk. It turns out that there is only a narrow strip of paving and beyond that is a hole where the home owners are presumably planning on planting a garden. Fiji was trying to navigate between the two edges and, if I’d been walking closer to her, I would have been fine.

We now know how to navigate that sidewalk safely and have experienced not more problems… and as the route has become familiar we have started walking faster and with more confidence – and the initial anxiety I felt when walking on the paving has gone.

For me the lesson is that it pays to take the time to be cautious when learning something new, be it a process, a skill, or a route – by playing it safe you can discover the pitfalls and figure out how to navigate them. Then, once you are more comfortable, you can speed up.

Yay! International Media Exposure!

IMG 20160611 WA0001Whoever would have thought that they would get international media for simply doing what they love? Well, maybe some people might, but I certainly wouldn’t number myself amongst them! And yet, that is what happened…

And what wonderful exposure it was – an article about me in the toastmasters International magazine, that goes to 325000 Toastmasters in 135 countries around the globe.

This story starts many months ago. Back in January I was asked if I could be interviewed for the Southern African toastmasters website. I was honoured and excited to be asked –especially since the article was being written by Zoya Mabuto, the southern African speech champion for 2015/16

I had the opportunity of meeting Zoya just before she was announced as the Southern African champion and was immediately struck by her energy and passion.

Through the article I enjoyed getting to know Zoya a little better. She is passionate about our beautiful country and our diversity of people, and her message is often one of hope, which strongly resonates with me. I guess it’s no wonder that our half hour Skype interview lasted far longer than we had anticipated– we had sooo much to talk about! The article Zoya crafted captured exactly what I would have wished.

Both Zoya and I were excited when one of the Southern African PR Editorial Team suggested submitting the article to the toastmasters International magazine – and it was accepted. The article was published in the June 2016 issue of the Toastmasters magazine.

Here’s a link to the article. Member Achievements.pdf

And a link to Zoya’s “Zoya Speaks” Facebook page

Testimonial: Hope Cape Town NGO

Below is a testimonial from the event organiser of the Tygerberg Hospital workshop I presented.

Lois Strachan addressed our community health workers at Tygerberg Hospital last week, and all of us were captivated by what she had to say. Not only is her story inspiring and deeply challenging, but she is also a humorous and eloquent public speaker. As a medical doctor I have listened to numerous speakers and lecturers, but I know that someone has made an impact when I retell their entire story to my husband and children, and when I am still thinking about what was said a week later! Lois really encouraged our community workers, who themselves face numerous and varied challenges on a daily basis. She reminded us to be grateful for what we do have, and also that nothing is impossible if your attitude is right. It is a real privilege to listen to Lois, and if you can get her to sing… you are in for a treat!

Dr Susan Purchase, HOPE Cape Town

If you’d like Lois to present at your conference or event, please contact her through her website www.loisstrachan.com for more information.

I May Be Blind… but At Least My Legs Work!

Last week I was asked to facilitate a workshop on what it is like living without sight in a visual world at Tygerberg Hospital. When the event organiser and I arrived at the hospital we walked to the nearest bank of lifts, only to discover that they were not working.
No problem – we just went to the next bank of lifts… and they were also not working.
Finally, after walking around the hospital building for around 15 minutes checking each lift we passed without success, we eventually found what felt to us like the only working lift in the entire (huge) hospital.

I know many of you will be asking why we didn’t just take the stairs… Well, my workshop was on the 11th floor.

Enough of my story – why am I telling you this?

The fact is that as we were rushing from one lift to another I could not escape the thought of what this must mean for a hospital, where people often need to be moved by wheelchair or in hospital beds, where people may be on crutches, are aged, or simply do not have the same degree of mobility as I do. Not to mention the vast number of visitors, staff, doctors, nurses who need to navigate the 11floors of the building.

How on earth was that possible with so many lifts out of service? What implications resulted from those lifts being out? And how many unnecessary problems arose because people could not freely move around the hospital? That was when I came to realize that, though I may be blind, at least I have the gift of mobility and though I would not have enjoyed climbing the stairs to get to the 11th floor; at least I had the capacity to do so.

The Amazing First fish Hoek Brownies

As a speaker, it has not been a surprise to me to discover that I love talking to adults about the capabilities of those who are differently abled, but I will admit I was surprised to discover how much I enjoy talking to youngsters on the same subject.

I had the opportunity to speak to the girls from the First fish Hoek Brownies this afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

The first time I spoke to a group of youngsters I was completely intimidated… Okay, maybe intimidated isn’t really the word – I was terrified! It’s one thing talking to a group of adults and sharing stories of some of the funny things that have happened to me since losing my sight, but talking to children is a completely different thing… especially as I do not have children myself.
An industry network is a powerful thing, and the speaking business is no exception. I asked one of my speaking colleagues, American professional speaker, Mark Brown, for advice and gained huge value from his experience of working with youngsters for many years. His basic advice? Involve the children as much as possible, as they become bored if you simply speak at them. So I try to follow this great advice whenever I speak to children.

When preparing to meet with First fish Hoek Brownies, I decided to let the girls take the conversation where they wanted, inviting them to ask whatever questions they had. The tricky bit was working out the logistics of the group interaction, and thankfully I had the help of a sighted adult to ensure that everyone got a chance to speak, and that no one dominated the conversation.

I was impressed by the diversity of questions asked by the girls (aged 7 – 10 years): from how I do things, to what it is that I see, from whether or not I remember what I look like, to how I play a guitar. And, of course, the girls wanted to know all about Eccles, my retired guidedog who accompanied me to the visit.

One of the first rules of speaking I learned was to know your audience, and my assessment that I had made the right decision in letting the girls ask questions was Bourne out by their supervisor, who told me that she had never seen the girls so attentive, and so well behaved. I just thought they were amazing, for the variety and maturity of their questions, and their openness to the concept that, despite my lack of sight, that I am just a normal person who does things a little differently.

The Question of Speaking for No Cost

Cds IMG 0429This afternoon I gave my presentation “Strength, Passion, Success” at the signal Hill rotary Club. As with the other Rotary clubs at which I’ve spoken recently, I was not paid for this presentation, though both I and Dawn Corin, who assisted me with transport and support, did receive a meal at the meeting. Many of my pro speaker friends have asked me what value I get out of speaking for no fee and I’ve given this question a great deal of thought over the past few weeks.

I want to make it quite clear that I do not intend speaking for free forever, that I will gladly accept paying gigs that come my way that suit my preferences. For now, however, I am gaining value from speaking at organisations like rotary and, linked to my illustrated children’s books the Adventures of Missy Mouse, schools and youth organisations like Brownies, for which I do not receive a fee. “Why?” you may ask…

There are several reasons:

  1. By simply speaking, I am raising my profile as a speaker, which will result in future paying gigs
  2. I am getting a chance to perfect my speech in front of an audience, so am improving my skills
  3. I am using the opportunity to change people’s perspective of what a person living with a disability can achieve
  4. I am building goodwill for organisations that are close to my heart, like casual Day and Toastmasters International.

Of these, the third is the one that gives my soul the greatest level of joy – each time I speak, I have the ability to raise people’s awareness of how those of us who are differently abled accomplish tasks, and give my audiences permission to ask questions that they might not usually do, for fear of offending those of us who are differently abled. It gives me a real sense of accomplishment each time someone comes over after I have spoken and shares with me how my presentation has inspired them and shifted their thinking about disability And that is just awesome!

Email updates
Lois shares updates on her book, speaking and the reality of living with blindness. Find out what Lois is up to – subscribe here.

Facebook