Deaf Employees: Headaches or Eagle-Eyed Excellence?

The big issues are deeper than legal rights and workplace accommodation

by Rachel Zemach 

While the first thought of employers on finding out their new employee or interview candidate is Deaf is usually one of alarm and apprehension, the reality is that many Deaf employees have unique talents to contribute. Our visual-spatial skills are markedly more acute than those of hearing people. Oliver Sachs describes this in his book Seeing Voices as being an extended range of peripheral sight, in part. In the Deaf community, we call it our “eagle eyes,” for we spot things hearing people would overlook, visually.

Another strength of the Deaf community is its propensity to rapidly share and spread information, since information is seen as a commodity and the need for it is understood and acted on readily. 

Deaf people, in their daily lives and as a community, have had to be innovative, creative and resourceful in figuring out how to get access in an audio-based environment. We are used to navigating a world that’s often unfriendly — in a practical sense, due to lack of visual access to information, and in a psychological sense, due to hearing people’s misconceptions about what being Deaf means. This has led us to be a resilient and creative bunch, with coping mechanisms galore and tried and true methods of getting around obstacles. 

However, a constant struggle among the nation’s 48.3 million Deaf people/people with significant hearing loss is getting into the workforce. Even very highly qualified Deaf people struggle to find work, often, and discuss amongst each other when and whether to reveal to their prospective employers that they are Deaf, in the interviewing process. This is not out of deceptiveness but due to an understanding that employers have no background with us and are likely to make assumptions that will block us from having the chance to prove ourselves worthy and able to find solutions to the obstacles they fear.

We must prove our skill set while also navigating how to access the interview itself, practically speaking. Do we request an interpreter? If so, do we ask the employer to pay for this, as is our legal right in most cases but may alienate them right out of the gate? Or do we rely on captions, which are often faulty and unpredictable? Or — even more unpredictable and fallible — do we rely on lipreading someone we have never met? Will the employer even proceed to the interview stage if we say on the application that we are Deaf? What most employers do not understand in advance of meeting us is that there is a ton of technology we can and are used to utilizing, and that we have legal rights to access they may not be aware of — and, indeed, may be (and often are) violating.

The respectful thing to do is to give us the benefit of the doubt that we can successfully resolve our communication needs. View the communication needs as going both ways: They are your needs as well as our needs; your limitations as much as ours. Luckily, we are experienced in this area already, so ask what ideas we have for solutions. 

We have significant rights legally for communicative access in the workplace; these can be found on the NAD website (National Association of the Deaf). Often, in-person interpreters work best, for meetings, interviews, etc. But other in-person options are voice-to-text apps; there are many of them, used daily by Deaf people, on phones and iPads.

Phone calls can be made very easily by simply calling via a free interpreting service like Convo or Sorenson using a specific phone number. Video calls with Google Meets have automatic captions, and captions are easily enabled on Zoom as well. VRI is remote interpreting; it is used in medical and other settings all around the country, and personal FM systems that sync with a feature in hearing aids via blue-tooth or a loop are extremely powerful for some.

There are instant messaging systems; captioned telephones; alerting systems using lights; electronic scrolls; and many, many more devices designed specifically to facilitate smooth communication between hearing and Deaf employees.

Once on the job, Deaf employees have tremendous skills and benefits to offer a business. An attitude that it is impossible, difficult or not worth it to hire us is detrimental to both parties, and it may block employers from finding their strongest, most innovative and best employee. The skills are there, the technology is there; now, all we need is good faith and bold humanity, and doors will open beautifully for everyone involved.  

Rachel Zemach is a Deaf teacher, writer, and passionate activist on behalf of Deaf and hard of hearing children and adults. She taught Deaf students for more than a decade — first in a public school and then in the dramatically different setting of a renowned school for the Deaf. What she experienced personally, and learned about the educational system and its impact on her students, stunned her and informed her work.

Did You Know: Disability is the largest minority in the U.S., and one out of every four people belongs to it. However, it remains extremely stigmatized and many report struggling to find employment, equity at school and flourish socially, across disabilities (but in the extreme with Deaf people, due to communication barriers). 

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