Deafness: Is It Really A Disability?

In college, I was taught about two approaches to deafness: the medical approach, and the cultural approach. Essentially, the medical approach regards deafness as something to be fixed or cured; the cultural approach regards deafness as something to be embraced and celebrated. Now, I won’t lie: after years of fighting to be “normal,” the Deaf community was a welcome respite that helped me solidify my identity outside of my hearing loss. But that niggling feeling remained: it wasn’t the whole story, especially when it came to job-hunting.

Deafness is pretty unique in that it’s one of the few disabilities that affords near-complete independence. We can drive, we can move around, we can hold down jobs in any physical and intellectual capacity. The only thing we– most of us– struggle to do is communicate in a hearing world.

Unfortunately, that last one is a pretty big deal, especially in networking and securing employment; or in seeking information and education. It’s much like being a perpetual foreigner– without communication, you miss out on language, social cues, and local culture. And not everyone is willing to accommodate, or they don’t know how.

In part, that’s what gave rise to Deaf culture. At various points throughout recent history, a bunch of deaf people got together, worked out their own communication and social norms, and out of it came a distinct language and culture. Over time, a social network for education and employment also developed– it wasn’t and still isn’t uncommon for Deaf people to find jobs in residential schools, ASL courses, and municipal social work.

Outside of those niches, however, our options become… more complicated. A whole lot of  service and sales professions– for example, reception, hospitality, and nursing– rely heavily on verbal communication. At least, as most people understand it. Mind you, several deaf people have found workarounds for succeeding in these types of jobs (many of whom are cuers!)*; often, their biggest challenge lay in convincing their employers that they could do it, albeit in a different way. Quite a few have just gone ahead and started successful businesses, notably in Austin, Texas.

These people, however, are a bit of a rarity.

A paradox: if deafness isn’t a disability in most senses of the word, then why do so many of us end up on SSDI? Or worse, straddling the poverty line?

Any objective measure comes up with two answers:

  1. Deaf people struggle to access secondary information in an auditory environment. We don’t usually overhear things like hearing people do; direct communication is how we learn and retain information. This has major implications for education.
  2. It’s harder to convince employers to hire and retain deaf employees at a living wage. We take longer to find jobs, and we get promoted at slower rates.

The best reconciliation I’ve heard for that paradox so far came from this Australian deaf blogger,** who defined deafness as a social disability. Once I thought of it that way, all those niggling pieces in my mind finally fell into place. See, one of my biggest hurdles in the Great 2014-2015 Job Search was networking at social events and job fairs. Imagine a patchwork conversation like this:

Me: So what kind of job do you do?
Them: Oh, I work at …. [unintelligible]
Me: Say again?
Them: [unintelligible] administrations at [unintelligible] in Dallas.
Me: Oooh. Administration? That sounds interesting.
Them: Yeah, we do a lot of paperwork and [unintelligible].

Not really a whole lot to work with, so the conversation peters out. And that happens everywhere: church, work, parties, social events. Building relationships is the whole point of networking, and how do you fluidly do that with persistent communication breakdowns?

The social model also explains why deaf people so often flourish in a variety of roles within deaf/disability/diversity-related occupations. Those occupations are designed to facilitate deaf-friendly communication, which in turn enables deaf people to build personal connections with coworkers, supervisors, and educators.

We’re not disabled, for the most part, unless our environment makes it that way.


*This does not include the relatively few professions where safety unequivocally relies on verbal communication, like armed services, police field work, and firefighting. I do know deaf people who work in these professions, but they tend to be in volunteer or support roles, not in active duty.

**Sadly, I lost the link to the Australian deaf blogger, because I suck. If anybody knows who I’m talking about, please feel free to drop me a line so I can credit him. It’s really an excellent article.

The Art of Disclosure: when do you tell an interviewer you’re d/hh?

In all my nagging at other people for their opinions on when to disclose hearing loss, I’ve yet to find any other d/hh topic so cleanly divided between hearing and d/hh respondents. Hearing loss isn’t something you can really keep on the downlow, even if you’ve got amazing speechreading and speaking skills. At some point, it has to be disclosed. The question is when.

In asking around, I’ve found that the breakdown usually goes as follows:

Hearing viewpoint: Best to be upfront; it has to come out at some point. If they have a problem with it from the beginning, you probably won’t ever convince them otherwise. No point in wasting either your or their time.

D/HH viewpoint: Leave any mention of hearing loss off your resume. If they call, don’t tell them you’re deaf or have the relay interpreter introduce herself. Don’t say anything about it until you get an interview, preferably in-person. (Note: Some d/hh people in my network reported applying to hundreds of positions with no bites; when they removed any mention of their hearing loss—such as having attended a residential school for the deaf—they finally started getting responses. I’ve yet to hear about any of these responses ultimately ending in a job, however.)

My experience: When I job-hunted after graduation, I seemed to get more traction when I disclosed my hearing loss earlier rather than later. Now, I didn’t see any reason why it needed to go in my resume or my cover letter, unless being d/hh could lend strength to that position, like diversity or accessibility. Usually, I’d disclose it when we discussed setting up a phone or in-person interview, saying something like, “I use a relay service due to hearing difficulties.” I preferred to use “hearing difficulties” instead of “deaf” because 1) my cochlear implant does make me functionally hard-of-hearing, and 2) I thought it sounded a bit less intimidating. I also emphasized that visual/text communication could easily substitute for spoken communication. Usually, the response was that hearing loss wasn’t an issue in this job. (Of course, it’s not like they could’ve told me otherwise without incurring a massive HR headache, but they could’ve also opted to say nothing at all…)

Despite what my DVR counselors had advised me, I’d found that I hated surprising potential employers with that information at a phone or in-person interview. It felt awkward, there was always fumbling, and I didn’t feel like anyone were adequately prepared. About halfway through my job search, I decided to just be upfront about it when it came up. Yeah, it probably narrowed down my job opportunities, but at least they were narrowed down to employers that I could safely assume would be open to hiring d/hh people.

(What I did run into more than once was that millennial catch-22: “You’ve got great credentials and we’re very impressed with your writing, but we need someone with more experience.” Go figure.)

Now, I’ve talked to other d/hh people who have had different experiences. So, I invite you to come share in the comments.

 

 

Deaf in the Workforce: Discrimination or Disqualification?

Why do deaf people struggle so much with employment? I’ve known so many hard-working, competent people who finally had to swallow their pride and go on SSDI after searching for several years.

The common reason I’ve been given is discrimination: employers don’t want to hire deaf people, because deaf. And to some degree, I do think this is true. I understand why employers would balk when you’re talking about jobs in which you have a lot of face-to-face communication, or safety concerns that rely very much on auditory input. Others, I think, are probably just not very well-informed about what a deaf employee entails; maybe they mistakenly believe that they have to provide an interpreter 40/5, or purchase costly equipment in order to comply with the ADA.

On the other hand… well, there are the resumes I’ve edited for deaf friends. That is usually the first thing the employer sees. If the deaf person’s writing skills weren’t so great and they didn’t get it edited first, I guarantee you it wasn’t “Graduated from _______ School for the Deaf” that got them turned down. Even if the resume passes, any email or text conversation will generally reveal that literacy level right away.

A friend who works in deaf education relayed her experiences with walking her deaf students through written tests. “I have to interpret everything,” she told me, “line by line.” She talked about having to explain what a puzzle was to a 17-year-old student. He was smart, and undoubtedly he’d seen and played with puzzles before, but he didn’t know the English name for it. So when he read that question on a test, “are you good at solving puzzles?”, he had to ask what a puzzle was.

I write and edit for a living. Straight up, I would not hire a majority of deaf and hard of hearing people I’ve met for any job that relied heavily on precise written communication. This has nothing to do with their hearing level and everything to do with their English skills. We must be able to communicate, somehow– if not verbally, then written. Many employers and employees cannot rely on signed-language or cued-language accommodations to be available 24/7.

In a lot of cases, it’s even worse than that. In talking with DVR counselors, I was amazed to find that many of their d/hh clients didn’t even know how to fill out a form for job applications. This could’ve been due to any reason– substandard education, mental impairment, pure laziness– but regardless of the reason, if these people didn’t even have the ability to fill out a form, is it any wonder they struggled so much to find employment?

And when these people try to enter the workforce– as is their right, as they should– how much of that literacy stigma spreads to the deaf and hard of hearing population in general? How much of it is discrimination? How much of it is due to poor reading and writing skills that impact job performance?

I don’t have any good answers here. I just know literacy’s still a huge problem in the d/hh community– I’d say it’s the biggest problem– and it bleeds out into everything. Maybe nowhere more so than your career.