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.

Talk to the Experts!

If there’s just one thing I could tell anybody trying to learn more about the myriad of issues involved in deafness, it’d be this:

If you want to learn more about Cued Speech, ask someone who uses Cued Speech. If you want to learn more about American Sign Language, ask someone who uses American Sign Language. Same for cochlear implants, hearing aids, visual phonics, whatever. And take their word for it. Don’t patronize by implying that they’re an outlier. And don’t mix ’em up– that is, don’t expect an in-depth, balanced view on Alexander Graham Bell or cochlear implants from a 70-year-old Deaf signer. Likewise, a spoken-language proponent may not be terribly knowledgeable about nor sympathetic to Deaf Culture and ASL.

This isn’t to say that you can’t share opinions and resources. But like any other community, the d/hh population has its share of controversial topics, especially regarding children. Bias is always, always a factor. So is lack of knowledge and direct experience. It’s worse if the community itself tends to be rather homogeneous. As a result, misinformation can spread quickly, with no one to correct these. And I can assure you, I’ve seen my share of these with Cued Speech, especially in deaf education.

This isn’t necessarily deliberate, by the way. In my experience, most educational professionals are simply not aware of Cued Speech. If they are, they fall into four broad categories:

1) They don’t know of anyone who uses it and/or have not seen the research, so they may assume that it doesn’t work.

2) They think it’s another variant of Visual Phonics and/or may not see it as a viable communication option.

3) They don’t see the need for it, citing that they use Signed English or a Bi-Bi approach with ASL.

4) They are open to it, but don’t know of any local resources nor demand for it.

Likewise, most d/hh people don’t use or see Cued Speech in action, although most people I meet are very accepting of the fact that I use it, and many are curious about how it works. But for the most part, they don’t know anything beyond what I showed them. Often, a good portion of our initial conversation is debunking misconceptions about Cued Speech.

As for those who had experience with it, including me, most of the feedback has been very positive. I did meet a few who had tried Cued Speech and decided it didn’t work for them, either because of resources or because they just didn’t ‘click’ with it. And that’s fair; everyone is different. The key here is that they tried it out for themselves, and formulated their opinions based on what they had personally encountered. More than that, these people could share the nuances that factored into their situation: a strong family network, mental and physical health, finances, access to resources, etc.

This, by the way, applies to anything in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Take any second-hand experience with a grain of salt.