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World Is at Fingertips of Blind Worker With Abacus

An ancient tool for counting provides invaluable assistance to an indomitable e-banker

September 15, 2002|CHRIS COBBS | ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Fla. — His fingers move with the swift, delicate purpose of a pianist coaxing a sensuous melody from a Beethoven concerto.

John Allen is lost in his numbers.

Seated at a desk in a sprawling open area with dozens of cubicles, the blind e-banker is effectively alone, listening to his talking computer through earphones and talking back with his hands.

As the curled fingers of one hand punch in digits on a keyboard, the other hand manipulates beads on an abacus, an ancient counting device used for addition, subtraction and toting up the price of goods.

Allen, who once showed computer magnate Bill Gates how a vision-impaired individual works a PC via talking software, is equally proficient on a counting tool with a 2,000-year history.

Practical antiquity and modern technology intersect in the fingertips of this SunTrust Banks worker who answers customers' online queries about the $9.75 ice cream purchase they forgot to enter in the checkbook.

As he hears a customer's online inquiry, he enters the person's account number, transaction a- mount and phone number on the abacus.

"I use it as a note pad," he says. "I can enter numbers two or three times faster on the abacus than on the keypad."

The beads on his well-used abacus are starting to show wear, the finish flaking off bit by bit. So sensitive are his fingertips that when he feels a particle of paint peeling, "it's like touching the thorn on a rosebush."

Allen, 32, handles about 10 e-mails per hour at the SunTrust operations building, a high-security facility set among a cluster of warehouses. A former telephone order taker at a Pizza Hut, he has worked his way up to the online banking job through several years of technology and independent-living classes in Miami and Orlando.

He hopes to take more advanced computer programming classes but says he will never abandon his abacus, a trusty companion since he lost his vision to retinitis pigmentosa at the age of 10 in 1980.

As a substitute for paper and pen, the abacus enables him to add, multiply, divide and use fractions. He takes an abacus nearly everywhere, jotting down a phone number to be entered into his PC, or keeping a running total on his spending at the grocery bill.

"I'm never off more than a penny at the grocery store, even if I spend $100," says Allen, a divorced father of one. His reliance on the abacus is unusual because few vision-impaired individuals are trained to use the low-tech tool anymore.

Since he is unable to see, Allen must rely completely on the dexterity and precision of his fingertips to manipulate numbers. And there's a similar surgical precision in his manner and the layout of his desk, says Karen Tharpe, who supervises Allen and a staff of 30 online staffers.

"He's so aware of his surroundings," she says. "If you move his keyboard a half-inch, he knows. He always sets his water bottle in the exact same place, to the right and above his keyboard. There's no paper on his desk, and he never uses a trash can."

Quiet and focused, Allen sits down and gets to work immediately each morning. He rarely speaks unless someone else speaks first, yet he talks at length when addressed and often jokes about his blindness.

"When I was 4 years old, I was playing tag with a little girl in our neighborhood in Miami," he says. "It was getting dark, and I ran into a fence while chasing the girl. That was the first time I knew something was wrong with my eyes. But I guess it was better to run into the fence than the sticker bush next to it."

The staff at SunTrust wasn't sure just what to expect when Allen was hired last December, but he has quickly learned about banking. Like other online workers, he's required to process 10 e-mails per hour with 95% quality for grammar, spelling accuracy and completeness, says Tharpe.

"He's still a little slower than the rest, but he's improving monthly. It takes time to get up to par. He's sweet and even-keeled, and he never shows frustration. He's an inspiration to all of us."

In the event of any frustration, Allen has a way to take out his feelings. A former black belt in judo, Allen is working out nightly trying to get back into shape. After being struck by a car a decade ago, he grew lax and gained weight but now hopes to return to judo competition next year. Even in the rough and tumble of judo, he uses his hands to guide his movements.

With his fingertips gripping the lapels of an opponent's workout suit, Allen can sense the lean of the body, the direction of the feet, even the angle of the toes, he says.

Numbers, movements, things visible and invisible, Allen measures the world through the tips of his fingers.

*

Chris Cobbs is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune company.

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