By Marilyn Weber
Today more than 50 percent of the deaf work full-time, and there are more job opportunities than ever. That’s quite a big change from a century ago when deaf people were banned from employment. As recently as 30 years ago, it was still very tough for deaf people to find work. Since then, huge advances in technology, coupled with important disability legislation, have helped society much more fully integrate and include deaf people in the workforce.
Which isn’t to say it’s entirely easy. There are still difficulties that make it hard for deaf people to fully participate in the workplace, and too often, employers aren’t even aware of the challenges they face. Here are some tips for both the deaf and their future coworkers on how to deal with common difficulties:
- Challenge: It’s difficult for the deaf to get past recruiters.
What to do: “For me it’s always the recruitment process that makes life difficult as a deaf person,” Genevieve Barr, a 30-year-old self-employed actress from Harrogate, U.K., told The Guardian. If you’re deaf and are most concerned about getting the chance to meet with a recruiter, it can help to rewrite your resume a bit, says Justin Smith, an international program manager quoted in the same article. Mention in the skills section that you’re fluent in both ASL and English: i.e., don’t stress deafness as your primary characteristic. For managers, it helps to learn not only about laws that don’t allow discrimination against the deaf, but to read up on case studies and testimonials from the many companies that have successfully put deaf people to work. Be sure senior management is committed to working with the deaf.
- Challenge: Pre-employment and orientation can be a struggle.
What to do: Deaf individuals can help their coworkers get through the initial phases of working together by simply being open and honest about what they need. Managers can help with a gracious greeting: Ensure your receptionist knows that a deaf applicant or employee will be arriving. Prepare coworkers or interviewers by reviewing communication strategies. Provide name tags that include job titles. Retain an interpreter, if possible. Use visual aids, and provide deaf applicants information to read in advance. Be sure films or videotapes you plan on using are captioned.
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- Challenge: Coworkers aren’t always sure how to begin a conversation with a deaf person.
What to do: This first step can be awkward, but it helps to simply establish protocols. You might ask a new deaf coworker, for instance, how he or she prefers to be approached. Some might tell you it’s by waving your hand, another might prefer a tap on the shoulder, or turning the lights on and off quickly. Kindness and earnest intent goes a long way.
- Challenge: Deaf people often feel left out of ad hoc conversations and meetings.
What to do: Go out of your way to include a deaf person in conversations. If a deaf coworker asks you to repeat something, be kind and do it, even if you must do it more than once. Having someone tell them “never mind,” or “I’ll tell you later,” is the number one complaint of most deaf workers, writes Rochelle Barlow, an ASL teacher. Deaf people themselves can help by being both assertive—asking to be included if they feel they’re being left out—and grateful when they’re included.
Perhaps the most important way to facilitate easier conversation among deaf employees and others is to equip employees with a tablet computer, which facilitates easy video-based communication. Video relay services (VRS) has only appeared in the last decade, but makes a dramatic difference in facilitating communication. A deaf person in one location uses VRS to initiate a video call to a hearing person in another location, and a third-party operator who speaks both sign language and English immediately appears to mediate and interpret the call. A similar service, called video remote interpreting (VRI) is used to communicate between two people in the same location.
Deaf people often are exceptionally hard workers, have above-average attendance, and are extremely productive. They can sometimes offer unique insights into how to solve problems. There are also tax incentives for hiring the deaf. Employers are increasingly realizing that deaf employees can be a great investment, a strong company asset, and exceptional sources of inspiration and motivation.