At first, there doesn’t seem to be anything unusual about Robert Wilkins.
The 28-year-old Missoula man works as a cashier at Fuddruckers, a hamburger restaurant on North Reserve Street. He smiles and greets customers, takes orders and gives people their number and change.
However, next to his cash drawer is a sign that says “cashier is visually impaired, please announce your presence.”
When Wilkins takes a customer’s credit card, he puts his hand in a certain spot and waits for them to place the card in his hand. Other than that, you would never notice the difference. He's not completely blind, but close.
It’s extremely difficult for people with severe visual impairments to find good jobs, especially customer service-oriented jobs in fast-paced restaurants.
But with modern technology, the hard work of state agencies and local nonprofits and a willingness on the part of employers, people like Wilkins can thrive. They gain self-confidence and become more financially independent.
Through a partnership with the Montana Vocational Rehabilitation program, Montana Blind and Low Vision Services, Opportunity Resources Inc. and Fuddruckers owner Russ Klare, Wilkins has broken the barrier that previously prevented him from entering the workforce.
Really, all it took was $400 worth of equipment that allows Wilkins to enter orders using Braille and a money-reading machine that tells him what denomination of bills he is putting in.
“This will work in any retail setting,” Klare said. “People don’t understand how easy it is.”
Klare said hiring Wilkins isn’t a charity case.
“He’s a great employee,” he said. “He’s loyal. His till is never off. That’s rare. It takes him a little bit more time to do things, but it’s not a problem. He works hard.”
Rita Pastore is the director of development at Opportunity Resources, a local nonprofit organization that provides and finds employment for people with disabilities. She said the screen that Wilkins uses is basically like an iPad.
“They worked really hard to get the technology that allowed Robert to get this job,” she said of the staff at ORI.
Hall Pulling, the associate director of employment services at ORI, said employers who are willing to give people a chance are the key to the program.
“The state sends people like Robert to us and we have to go find work for them in the community and find employers willing to work with them,” Pulling explained. “That’s why Russ was so great, because he’s willing to let us come in and actually retrofit part of his business here so someone with a visual impairment can take orders. I wish we had more employers like him.”
Wilkins said he had good eyesight when he was younger, but he always wore glasses. When he turned 19, he started noticing he was losing his ability to read.
“I would always read those Harry Potter books,” he explained. “When a new one came out I would read it. But a new one came out, and I couldn’t read it.”
Eventually, he was diagnosed with rod-cone dystrophy, a result of a rare genetic disorder called Bardet-Biedl syndrome.
Wilkins then learned to read Braille at the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind in Great Falls. But knowing Braille isn’t enough to get a regular job and be a productive member of society. It takes somebody willing to take a chance.
Klare admitted he was skeptical the first time someone with a visual disability came in for a job assessment.
"I said, are you crazy, he’s blind!" Klare recalled. "This is the land of falls, slips, sharp objects and burning.”
Most of Klare’s fears were assuaged when Opportunity Resources said it would pay the workers' compensation insurance. However, even though the first employee was a great worker, Klare just didn’t think he could compete with a regular employee. A few weeks later, though, he began to reconsider.
“I got to thinking about technology today,” he said. “Why can’t we find a talking cash register? Why can’t this work? We talked about it, and nine months later they came back and said they have a system that will work. We’ve proved that this works.”
Klare said Wilkins can do everything that other cashiers do, except he can’t take credit cards because he can’t verify the signature or check people’s ID for alcohol.
“But his position is the same as any other cashier,” Klare said. “He’s never going to be as fast as any other cashier, but he’s great. What’s amazing about this is, this system, the way it works, it would work in any retail environment. It opens that door for anybody that needs a cashier. It’s just amazing what the system will do.”
Wilkins has real responsibilities and gets real satisfaction out of his workday. Klare said he is treated just like any other employee.
“This is a real job,” he said. “Yeah, you have issues. Some people don’t like the fact that he’s slow. But most people are just curious. How does he do that? But it is quite amazing. It really is something that opens a door to all people that are visually impaired.”