The World’s Largest Private Deaf Employer

Employment Matters column,

Do you know who is the largest private employer of deaf staff anywhere?

Yes, anywhere. There are other places – deaf schools, mostly – with many deaf staff, but they’re publicly funded. We’re talking about a private business here, with well over 100 deaf staff. We’re talking about full time workers earning $28,000 to $32,000 a year, and often more with overtime. There are deaf people in management – some have worked there since the business opened over 6 years ago. And what does this band of deaf professionals do for a living?

They work with deaf customers. The customers, in this case, are psychiatric patients living at the National Deaf Academy (NDA). And full disclosure – I work at NDA. So this is an inside view.

Psychiatric care is not easy work. The patients who arrive at NDA have often been abused, misunderstood, neglected. Some have wonderfully supportive families, and others have no family at all, or have been abandoned by their families. Many of them need all the support and guidance they can get – and that’s what NDA does.

The support includes a team of deaf and hearing therapists, teachers, doctors, nurses and Mental Health Technicians, all who watch over the patients from day to day. They teach them, care for them, encourage them when they grow frustrated, intervene when they become upset, praise them when they progress.

The work requires extraordinary patience. The customers arrive with serious issues, and it takes time to sort though the problems and develop a program that will match the patient’s needs. The key to making it happen is being able to communicate effectively with the patient, and NDA has more collective experience doing this than any other place in the world.

Because NDA is a residential facility, there is staff on duty 24 hours a day, in three shifts. The morning team begins bright and early at 7 a.m. and hands over responsibility to the afternoon shift at 3 p.m. At 11 p.m the night crew arrives and works until daybreak, when the morning staff returns and the cycle begins again.

The customers span a wide age range, from young children to adolescents and adults. Most of the MHT staff is younger, in their 20’s, with a few 30-, 40-, and 50-somethings sprinkled through. They’ve all worked long, hard hours, through holidays, weekends, on-call and standby shifts, dealing with autism, severe mood swings, bipolar behavior, aggression, low functioning, bickering between the residents and much more. There’s never any shortage of drama.

It’s a very human environment – the philosophy of care at NDA rejects straightjackets and locked rooms. Patients enter a scheduled, structured program with strict rules, and the staff begins with five days of intense training on how to handle everyday business and emergencies. People who have been at NDA for several years have developed a special bond that comes from working together through tough situations.

What makes NDA stand out for the patients is the ability to talk to nearly everyone. Some of them have been placed in hearing psychiatric care before, where the communication abilities of the staff are limited. This often leads to endless frustration.

At NDA, it’s a different story – there are plenty of people they can talk to, work with, vent their angst, and learn to trust. This is a big deal for people who have been insulted and treated poorly in other places. Still, building that trust takes time – sometimes years.

It’s also a big deal for deaf staff to earn a living working with many other deaf employees. There are not many such places. NDA is just north of Orlando, Florida, so it attracts people with good climate, an easy drive to the beach and a lower cost of living than much of the nation.

This summer will bring growth, with a new 46-bed building opening for adults. NDA is preparing now by hiring more staff.