By Amy Blount
April 11, 2002
Deaf in the Workplace
The views of society as a whole regarding deaf people have remained more or less unchanged throughout history. With the exception that in modern times most hearing people understand that deafness is not a sign of a mental deficiency, it is still a widespread view that a deaf person is afflicted with a disability and should be seen as having a handicap. Deaf individuals will encounter these views throughout their lifetimes, but perhaps at no time more so than it becomes necessary to seek employment. Deaf adults are faced with the task of finding a job despite ignorant views and misconceptions. With the support of laws in their favor, a successful educational background, and open-minded employees, many deaf men and women are very successful in the workplace.
Many laws have been passed in order to end discrimination and disservices against disabled individual, which also benefit deaf persons. PL 89-333: Vocational Rehabilitation Act Amendments, passed in 1965, allows for rehabilitation center funding and case service funds for sign-language interpreter services. Some data reveals that " the fifty state VR ( vocational rehabilitation) agencies collectively serve over 40,000 deaf or hard of hearing persons per year" (Watson 150). Another important act is the 1973 PL 94-142: Education for all Handicapped Children Act, which provides for "free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment for all handicapped children ages 5-21" (Watson 152). A landmark act was signed on July 26, 1990 by President George Bush, Sr. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an expansion on the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (PL 93-112), specifying handicapped civil rights.
1973 Rehabilitation Act included "affirmative action programs for employment, placement, and advancement of individuals with disabilities within the federal government" and "nondiscrimination for programs and activities receiving or benefiting from federal financial assistance" (Watson 154). ADA added clear mandates to end discrimination against people with disabilities and accommodations such as telecommunications-relay services.
"Nearly three/fourths of all jobs now require technical training beyond a high school diploma. …The average new job will require 13.5 years of education" (Bahan 313). In order to prepare themselves for admittance into college or some other form of training, a deaf child must first receive appropriate schooling. Within the public school system, a popular route for deaf children since the Rehabilitation Act, debates over teaching processes are leaving many deaf children academically behind. Although "ASL being the vest language model that is within the biological reach of the Deaf child…", the language is being left out of the public school system (Bahan 293). This stress on English through the use of total communication, simultaneous communication, manually coded English, and many other teaching strategies is leaving the deaf student graduating high school with a third or fourth grade reading level. However, with the help of the creation of the Bilingual Education Act in 1965, some school districts are requiring teachers fluent in English and ASL in order to sufficiently teach written English which will result in better comprehension in all areas of the education process, better preparing them for postsecondary education. Students attending residential schools which stress ASL will also excel due to the use of the child's natural language.
After successfully receiving a college education or vocational training, the deaf adult is now ready to enter the workforce. Do to affirmative action laws, some employee are practicing "active employment", " actively recruiting and hiring competent disabled persons for positions in a company" (Fritz 38). It is perhaps most crucial that the employer be familiar with the deaf culture enough to realize that the deaf employee is without limitations. An employer must " remember that hearing-impaired people vary widely in the ways in which they communicate, and the skill with which they do it" (Fritz 18). In an interview with ten supervisors who were either directly or indirectly involved in the hiring of deaf employees revealed five consistent factors that were critical to the employment decision. "(1) characteristics of the candidate, (2) urgency and difficulty in filling the job vacancy, (3) personal recommendations and connections, (4) the perspective of the hiring supervisor towards deafness, and (5) organizational policy or mission (Foster 22). After deciding to hire a deaf man or woman, many employers find no real need to make special accommodations. When training the new employee they may both rely on written instruction as well as demonstration by the employer or a delegated, seasoned fellow employee. Should the need arise for adapting audiovisual training material, the following are helpful: printed script, live interpreter, interpreter superimposed on moving visuals and captions. These options are chosen by employees based on effectiveness and cost. It may be necessary at some point to make adjustments. Most are simple, such as seating the deaf employee near a supervisor so that instructions can be easily seen, and if necessary, the supervisor can spend additional time demonstrating a new concept. Employers and employees alike can make a major step in improving the work environment for everyone by picking up on a little bit of the sign language specific to the profession from the deaf employee, thus forming the relationships necessary for successful team work. These relationships can also be "the foundation for career mobility" when applied to the "it's not what you know, it's who you know" philosophy (Foster 123). All in all in the right environment, the deaf employee can strive. "Communication differences challenge both deaf and hearing people to be creative, flexible and patient in their efforts to work together productively and enjoyably" thus honing skills useful to job success (Foster 219).
With the proper educational opportunities, employers with an educated view on deaf employees, and the backing of many opportunity creating laws, deaf individuals need only to choose a career and train for it. As minds open to the true identity of the Deaf community and its members, more and more businesses may ready themselves for the arrival of young, deaf college graduates eager to become professionals. Fitzer eloquently states, "… the talents of deaf colleagues are far too valuable a resource to be ignored; if deaf workers are not accommodated within the workplace and accepted as partners and equals in the American enterprise, everyone loses" (219).
Foster, Susan B. Ph.D. Working With Deaf People: Accessibility and Accommodation in the
Workplace. Springfield, Illinois: C.C. Thomas, 1992.
Fritz, Georgene and Nancy Smith. The Hearing-Impaired Employee: An Untapped Resource. San
Diego, California: College-Hill Press, 1985.
Lane Harlan. Introduction. Parallel Views. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1994.