A deaf employee adapts to a hearing world and workplace

Posted on January 27, 2009 in Employment Needs | Short Link
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by Josh Jones, Bank of New York Mellon IT Diversity Council
Original article published on BNY Mellon intranet website, October 29, 2008

When I was young, I was growing up differently, but I didn’t realize just how “different” I was. In appearance, I looked “normal” and acted normally, but the difference was that I was deaf, and this difference wasn’t obvious to me because I grew up in deaf family. We were all the same and, therefore, I was “normal.”

Over the years, I went to mainstream schools with both hearing and deaf students, and an interpreter translated the spoken English into my “spoken” language, American Sign Language (ASL). When I started going to school, it was the first time I spent a significant amount of time with people who were not deaf. This was unusual for me and highlighted a difference between me and others that I hadn’t had to address before. I started thinking, “Who am I?” I was not able to understand or connect with myself as someone who is deaf.

Because so much of how we see ourselves and the world around us is through language, I asked myself, “How can I be more like them?” So, from kindergarten to 12th grade, I had speech therapy. I thought having “speech” would help me to be like everyone else.

Joshua Jones and the Sorenson videophone
For telephone calls, Josh uses a video relay service. A desktop camera and monitor provide real time ASL interpretation of his telephone calls. The interpreter can be seen on the monitor on his desk.

But, speech therapy made it very clear to me that I was not like everyone else. Understanding the spoken language required understanding sounds that I couldn’t hear. I was used to speaking in ASL, where language was not so much heard or spoken but visualized. In trying to master the spoken language, I felt like a goldfish in a bowl, observing things around me. I came to understand that, in fact, I was different, and the difference was that I was deaf. This created the birth of my deaf identity: I am deaf no matter how I try to change myself.

Throughout my career in information technology, I’ve had many experiences with hearing employees where they don’t understand deafness. Because so much of what we learn is experiential and because such a large part of our day is spent at work, I’ve made an effort to help explain and share the deaf experience with my co-workers. Joining and writing this article for the IT Diversity Council is one way to share that experience.

Part of that experience is learning to adapt — on both sides. My co-workers and I have to adapt how we communicate with one another, and we all need to be aware that for me to participate, communications need to be planned — you can’t just count on somebody who is deaf to be able to hear something around the office or over the cubicle wall. Often, when it comes to communication between me and other workers, we tend to write down on paper or use a white board or a cube wall.

Technology also helps, and I find that instant messaging has become increasingly important because it is a simple, common communication method.

Fortunately, technology now makes using the telephone easier, too. We’ve been able to move beyond the teletype machine (TTY) and now have access to video relay services. My work telephone, for example, is a direct dial to a video relay service that allows me to sign via video camera to an ASL interpreter who translates for the caller on the other end of the telephone. It’s a terrific advancement that allows me to communicate much more effectively.

I need interpreters for meetings to help with the communication. Although co-workers can often give deaf employees copies of meeting notes, it’s an imperfect solution because the notes are very personal and can miss many points. The optimal solution is to have an interpreter in meetings because it allows deaf employees to sign their “voice” and give their opinions.

Being deaf isn’t as bad as many other people might think. Sometimes, people act as if I have some kind of “disease” that may be contagious but, in reality, it’s just hearing loss. Talking about diversity and our differences reminds us that we all have differences. In terms of deafness, I often remind people that we can do everything except hear. We just have different needs in communication.

In some ways, dealing with a deaf person is like communicating in a different language, and it’s helpful to understand a few items from that “phrasebook”:

  • ASL speakers are very visual. In order to ensure clear communication, you need to lock the attention of that deaf employee and maintain eye contact. It can be considered rude if eye contact is not maintained.
  • Although many deaf employees can excel in their work because they have the ability to focus without disruptions from nearby noise, they also can be easily startled if you come up too quickly or tap their shoulder too hard. The best way to get their attention is to come to their desk and try to wave or tap on the desk.
  • When you are trying to make conversation, make sure you have about three feet of space between you and the deaf employees so they are more comfortable.

These are just simple steps that can help us to communicate more easily and more effectively, and when we improve communication, we improve understanding and our ability to work and interact together. Each step and each simple action moves us one step further into the world of diversity!

If you would like to learn more about this topic or if you have resources to offer, please contact us.

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