Inclusiveness is Win-Win

Employment Matters column,

Diversity and choice have always been hot topics in the deaf community. The debate raises deep questions about who we are as a community, our cultural values, and our future.

These values about who we are affect how we deal with each other in the deaf and hard of hearing community and how we interact with people outside the community. They affect how we see ourselves, how we play, and how we work.

One of the critical points of discussion has been where we draw the line between who is part of the deaf community and who is not. Do you hold a very narrow definition or are you more inclusive?

Another, and much older point of debate is whether the deaf community should partner with disability groups when seeking funding for services. This issue continues to come up because the deaf community fiercely rejects being labeled as disabled, yet we lobby for services like captioning and interpreters.

These two points of debate exist because our ideas about self-identity are very personal. We are also caught between the identity we choose for ourselves and the labels that hearing society apply to us.

These questions will not be settled any time soon, but there are a couple of ways we can think about them. One approach to the disability issue is to ask; does anything about me place me at a competitive disadvantage, especially when looking for work or keeping a job?

This is a question that can be applied very broadly. A person with poor social skills will be at a disadvantage in many situations. A person with poor navigation skills might not be the best choice as a delivery driver.

These could be considered “soft” disabilities, because they involve a lack of skills that can be managed or eliminated with training or technology. The person with poor social skills can be tutored to do better. The person with poor navigation skills can get a GPS unit.

In times past, physical issues were seen as “hard” disabilities. This is becoming less so – the science of prosthetic arms and legs is fast improving, some mental illness can become manageable through medicine and training, blind people have access to screen readers on computers.

These developments make people traditionally viewed as disabled more competitive in the workplace – more so than most people realize. That gap between perception and reality, the weight of longstanding attitudes, becomes the biggest anchor dragging down employment rates among disabled people.

And this stigma is, in part, why the deaf and hard of hearing community rejects the disability label. A “can do” attitude prevails here – and exists to combat the outdated idea that we “can’t do”.

There is also the question of inclusiveness within the deaf and hard of hearing community. The pivot point on this discussion usually revolves around the use of ASL. For some the line is very bright and clear – only people who are deaf and skilled in ASL are truly part of the deaf community.

Others see the the community more closely resembling the layers of an onion, with born-deaf native ASL people at the core, and upper layers filled with decreasing levels of ASL skill and increasing levels of hearing. The size of the onion depends on who’s talking – attitudes make a big difference here.

When we advocate for equal employment opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing workers, we’re also asking hearing employers to be more inclusive. We’re asking – sometimes demanding – that they broaden their definition of capable employees to include deaf and HOH people.

While we’re doing that, we can set an example by being broadly inclusive about people in our own community. If we want employers to welcome us, we can welcome people who are interested in being part of the deaf and HOH community even if they don’t fit the classic definition of deaf community members.

We can always use more friends and allies, and employers can use our abilities. Inclusiveness is a win-win solution.