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With Deaf Employees, Communication is a Two-Way Street

August 7, 2002
Related Topics: Disabilities, Featured Article, Compensation, Benefits
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Interviewing, hiring, and working with people who have disabilities isn’t that tough, says Steven Bock, who is deaf. As a software engineer for IBM, he provides technical consulting services on data management and disaster recovery for some of the corporation’s largest client companies.

All HR has to do is concentrate on the candidates’ abilities, not their disabilities, he says.

"My advice to HR people is to look at the quality of the individual with an open mind," says Bock, who lives in Seattle but works "remotely" for the San Jose-based IBM Silicon Valley Laboratory. He also is part of an IBM team that recruits deaf and hard-of-hearing students on college campuses. "Don’t be concerned about the accommodation issues before you know the person. You want to hire the best-qualified person for the job."

Bock started at the company as an intern when he was a student at California State University, Northridge, which in the 2001-2002 academic year had 240 deaf students--the largest population of deaf students at a mainstream U.S. university.

Bock’s internship led to a full-time job. "Being given a job is an exhilarating feeling," he says. It confirmed his commitment to make a positive contribution to the workplace, regardless of his deafness.

From time to time, Bock says, he has encountered resistance from hearing people at work. Their typical reaction is to ask if there’s another person available--meaning a hearing person.

"It’s becoming less and less common as the awareness of deafness and hard-of-hearing issues has become more prominent," Bock says. "But it has occurred, and it will continue to occur. You use those instances to try to build communication." He starts with "a good-natured approach to the relationship. I just suggest we start working together, working through an interpreter." With time, cooperative hearing people do get past perceived barriers.

In his work, Bock uses a variety of methods to communicate with his hearing colleagues and clients, including lip-reading, note-writing, typing notes back and forth on a computer, Internet chat, and, of course, the use of sign-language interpreters.

The latest innovation is remote video interpreting. Bock sits at his computer, which is outfitted with a Web camera and microphone. He dials the video interpreting service's phone number, and a sign-language interpreter appears on his computer screen. The interpreter and Bock can see and sign to each other.

Next, the interpreter asks for the number of the hearing person, and dials out. The hearing person is connected by telephone, and can pose questions to the interpreter, who signs to Bock. The interpreter then translates Bock’s answers. The service can also be used during face-to-face meetings, Bock says. It’s easy to schedule, and comparably priced to having an on-site interpreter.

Video interpreting is only one innovation that the Internet and Web have brought to people with disabilities. Bock says the technologies--including e-mail--have made a tremendous difference. "It helps to level the playing field, which is what deaf and hard-of-hearing people need--equal access."

Bock says that both disabled and non-disabled people have to work together to find the accommodations or adaptations a worker needs to get the job done. HR shouldn’t assume it knows what the disabled worker requires, he says.

"It’s prudent to ask the deaf or hard-of-hearing person what they need. Include them in the process, so they feel that they’re a part of the organization and the team," he says. "And it’s incumbent on the deaf person to request accommodations in job interviews or on the job."

Perhaps even more important than adaptive technology is attitude, Bock says.

"I try to show an attitude of being willing to work through communication issues in a positive and friendly manner. I counsel deaf and hard-of-hearing people to do that. And I’d say the same thing to an HR person. Communication is a two-way street."

Workforce Online, August 2002 -- Register Now!

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