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VIA’s Statler Center Trains People for Heroic Work

You never know where you might find a hero – perhaps a person who provides the right help in hard times.

For thousands of people who called for help last year to 211 in Western New York, the heroes on other end of the line were individuals who had trained at the National Statler Center. The National Statler Center is the educational and employment arm of VIA, formerly Olmsted Center for Sight, a Johnson Scholarship Foundation grantee partner.

The stories they heard covered every difficulty imaginable, but amplified by the pandemic – a man needing rent assistance as a landlord threatened eviction, a 22-year-old pregnant woman out of work and out of money, a senior whose water heater quit working, a deaf woman trying to leave an abusive spouse.

211WNY has been a program of VIA for about a decade. About half to three quarters of the information specialists answering the phones are blind or visually impaired. Last year during the pandemic, call volume to 211WNY almost doubled to nearly 82,000, said Renee DiFlavio, Sr. Vice President, Development of VIA. Providing the information that callers need to link them to services is a special skill executed with assistive technology and trained listening skills.

“Certainly if you’re visually impaired, there are many jobs you can do, but call center work is a great job because of the tele-technology,” DiFlavio said. “What’s also interesting is that it might be a model eventually for people to hire people who are blind or visually impaired to work those jobs.”

a woman seated at a computer

Sharell B., a Statler Center graduate, working at the 211WNY Call Center.

Many of the people on the end of the phone lines assisting callers learned their skills at the National Statler Center. The center offers programs for training in several fields, including customer service, hospitality, food prep, software applications, and communications.

“All of the work stations have adaptive technology with a dual-input headset,” said Ray Zylinski, Assistive Technology Instructor at VIA. “You’d hear the caller in one ear, and the computer audio in your other ear. It’s not something everybody can do. You’re essentially absorbing information from two different audio sources at once.”

People who work for 211WNY become adept at entering key words related to a caller’s issue to find human service agencies that could provide the caller with assistance.

More than 100 people have gone through the technology program at VIA’s Statler Center. While some work for 211WNY, others are in jobs with companies throughout the area, the result of the placement specialists at VIA, Zylinski said.

“Statistics show that a very high percent of individuals with low vision who can find employment don’t leave that job, so the attrition rate is significantly low,” Zylinski said. “That hits employers in their wallet, and then they tend to listen.”

That ability to listen is what made heroes of VIA’s assistive technology and referral specialists when so many people were in need of help.


Angie Francalancia is a communications specialist with Johnson Scholarship Foundation

New Name, Same Career Focus for Program Preparing Visually Impaired Students for Workforce

As the grant writer at VIA, formerly Olmsted Center for Sight, I know that our greatest reward comes from helping people achieve independent, prosperous lives. Partners like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation have helped us make this a reality for nearly 700 graduates of our vocational training program formerly known as the Statler Center.

In our 20th year of providing career training for blind, visually or otherwise disabled students from across the U.S., VIA helps our students achieve financial independence by offering comprehensive job training in hospitality, food preparation, customer service, telecommunications, and general business fundamentals through both face-to-face and online classes. Through this training, graduates can embark on long-lasting, rewarding careers that empower them to live independently and experience meaningful career success.

Consider the recent success of a Johnson Scholarship recipient, Rebecca Grayson of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Both blind and dyslexic, Rebecca became an online student in her late 20s. As part of her oral communication training, Rebecca had to pick a job posting and practice interviewing for the position. Rebecca did so well in her mock interview that she decided to take the plunge and actually interview for the job. She was offered the position and began work as a doctor’s office assistant.

Statler Center staff member Ray Zylinski teaches Job Access With Speech (JAWS) to a blind student from New York.
Statler Center staff member Ray Zylinski teaches Job Access With Speech (JAWS) to a blind student from New York.

Rebecca loves her job and is thankful for the online class that gave her the skills and confidence to become ready to work. As she recently told us, “I am doing great and am really enjoying my job. Thank you again to the Statler Center and Johnson Scholarship for this opportunity!”

Job placement is the primary means by which we measure program success. Nationally, approximately three-quarters of the blind and visually impaired are unemployed, earning two-thirds less on average compared to their non-disabled co-workers. In contrast, approximately three-quarters of VIA’s nearly 700 graduates are currently employed with an average starting wage of $12.68 per hour, significantly higher than the federal minimum wage.

To prepare our students to be successful in their job search and placement journey, we emphasize that investing the right amount of time, self-reflection, and energy into a job search is essential to find a rewarding job. We tell students that each person is a unique puzzle piece. The sides of your puzzle piece are your individual qualifications, skills, strengths, coupled with your ideal location, hours, schedule, and work setting. For you to be successful at work, the company culture must fit you. Past experiences can help you figure what you like and why, and just as importantly what you DON’T like and why. Not everyone is perfect for every job. If you hate being outside and sweating, well then, working in landscaping is definitely not the right job for you. But we all belong somewhere. Once you are honest with yourself about your skills, strengths, and qualifications, you need to find that puzzle looking for one special unique missing puzzle piece – YOU!

Interviews are your first face-to-face experience with a company, and it is true – You only have one chance to make a first impression! Almost all communication (93%) is nonverbal so your gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, and posture are often more important than what you say. The key to answering those difficult interview questions is to positively promote yourself. You need to reframe your answers into “I can if” statements. This reframing builds confidence, which all job seekers need, but especially job seekers with disabilities.

Once offered the job, we teach job seekers how to discuss accommodations and self-advocate. We teach our students to say “My disability is NOT a weakness.” A screen reader is not different than reading glasses used by other applicants. It’s simply a tool that you need for success at work. Working closely with applicants and companies, we help them to understand reasonable accommodations and negotiate logistics like who will cover the cost, how long it will take to install, who installs it, and what is looks like, among other things. Once employers become familiar with the accommodations that our graduates need for success, they are comfortable and ready to get their new employees on board.

By funding education, peer support, on-the-job work experience, access to assistive technology, vocational rehabilitation services, and mentoring, Johnson Scholarship Foundation is giving VIA graduates the skills to succeed!

Becky Landy is a grant writer who comes to VIA with a broad background at not-for-profits, higher education, and corporate marketing. She has taught business communication at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. She has an undergraduate degree from Colgate University and an MBA from Clarkson University. She is a passionate writer who enjoys helping the blind and visually impaired start on their journey to financial independence and a fulfilling life.