There were no deaf children where I grew up, no deaf children where I went to school.
There was no hearing impairment I can remember in my family, no deaf personnel serving in the military where I was assigned.
Not until I was in my 30s did I first meet deaf people, work alongside them and form my opinions of them. But I had suppositions, formed by years of isolation from them, which were at first naive. I thought they should be treated differently than others in the workplace: perhaps given more breaks, limited working hours, specialized jobs. I even thought they should be driven to work, because they were unable to hear the blares of the horns of other drivers warning them of danger.
Worse than this simple attitude I had of deaf people was the idea I had of their attitude in the workplace. I assumed they would take a docile attitude toward work, without any opinion of their own: pushing and pulling containers, lifting materials and packages, sometimes done pointlessly, yet eliciting no questions from them.
I learned quickly that none of my impressions of them were true. I learned that deaf people are independent. They don't need or want special consideration at work. They do most of the jobs other workers do within the same parameters and in view of the same expectations as their counterparts.
They have strong opinions; they are sometimes critical of workplace practice. In communicating with them I quickly perceived they have critical eyes focused on how work should be done more efficiently.
And the overall responsibility for the efficiency of companies belongs, of course, to managers who also have an obligation not to discriminate against prospective deaf employees in hiring practice. Yet some managers in hiring them feel that that is their only obligation to them.
Managers hire them and just put them "out there" to deal with the peculiarities of a noisy and sound interactive work environment.
Some managers, untrained in communicating with and in the supervising of deaf workers, are unable, like being on the other side of an impenetrable wall, to explain the intricacies of the job to them. Some are unable or unwilling even to introduce deaf individuals to their fellow workers.
Fortunately for hearing impaired workers the law has required employers to put into place apparatus to facilitate their integration into the workplace. Lights are substituted for bells such as in the use of doorbells and fire alarms; captioned training videos help them.
But a more thorough integration, the full participation of deaf employees in the workplace comes remarkably from deaf workers themselves. From their youths they have been taught to communicate in any way possible with others; they've been taught to expect to be treated like everyone else in society.
This is not to say there are not obstacles confronting deaf people at work. Many times after several frustrated attempts to get their message across to co-workers, deaf people resort to writing down their ideas.
It becomes clear that I, like many others, am unprepared for communicating with deaf people. Their gestures and unsuccessful attempts at verbalization can confuse co-workers like me, who have no knowledge of sign language and no skill for reading lips. It is problematic when we are the ones designated to train deaf employees in a particular job. Fortunately I have found them to be quick learners, often more focused than their hearing capable peers.
With their determination to work as equal partners in business and industry, hearing impaired employees are inspiring. As we recall their achievements during Deaf History Month, none who work with them should feel threatened by their independence, but should be impressed by their abilities.
Daniel J. Hersh