You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Employment Matters column,

There was a time when deaf employment thundered. Literally – it vibrated and shook, rattled the walls and drove away the timid. And the deaf employees? They were a mob of ink-stained wretches, in the fond phrase of the era. They ran the printing presses, some of which were a big as a small house. In a time before the Net, forests fell and their trees were fed into the maw of enormous machines that required careful, skilled attention.

They were an elite, the men who worked these mechanical beasts. They understood the clanking monsters, knew their temperamental ways. They maintained the subtle balance of tension and pressure needed to apply ink to vast sheets of paper hour after hour, day after day, year after year. They were an essential part of what made every American newspaper a “daily miracle”.

The San Francisco Chronicle had as many as 60 deaf printers producing the paper.

Gary Hendrix and his brother Richard worked there and at the SF Examiner for 37 years, as their father did. Many of their hearing colleagues learned sign language to communicate. One of their co-workers, Doug Floyd, said of 38 years in the pressroom: “It was a total brotherhood.”

In a time when deaf people didn’t get much respect, deaf printers did. In a time when many deaf workers earned meager wages, if any wages at all, deaf printers walked tall with satisfying, regular paychecks.

Many were International Typographical Union members and earned more than teachers. They were living proof of a can-do ethic, of intelligence, ability, and professional reliability.

Some, like Edwin Hodgson, worked hard to share their knowledge and good fortune – he became a printing instructor, making it possible for more deaf printers to earn a living wage, and went on to become a president at the National Association of the Deaf.

That era is gone. The rolling roar of giant mechanical printing presses has muted, and the work is now highly automated. Collections of metal type have been replaced by the mouse and keyboard.

We are no longer slaves to the machines. We are now masters of the Net.

Deaf employment no longer relies on a few narrow professions where hearing workers are at a disadvantage. We are no longer tied down to a single work location. With our pagers, computers, cars and commercial airline service, we have grown wings. We can choose to go where the work is or have the work come to us. Our eyes extend as far as our VRS videophones can take us – which is to say, nearly anywhere.

Where our grandfathers worked in the service of publishers, we ourselves are publishers, with our thoughts available online instantly, for all the world to see. Not only that – we can choose to publish in print, or in sign. The age of the video blog is upon us.

The visibility of ASL is greater now, the appreciation of its grace and expression more widespread. This is opening doors everywhere.

Deaf children today see deaf adults working far beyond the old, limited vocations. We have spread into every area – law, education, insurance, real estate, health care, entertainment, travel and much, much more. For decades, the deaf community has moved forward and upward, gaining speed on the twin engines of education and technology.

Our progress has not always been obvious on a daily basis, so we might not realize just how far we’ve traveled without a brief look back.

We still grump – justifiably – about underemployment. We still lament the quality of deaf education, and there’s plenty of room for improvement. But we have not been shy about protesting when we demand better. Discrimination, confusion, ignorance, even hostility – all these familiar demons remain with us. But deaf professionals are no longer a small, proud pool of ink-stained wretches. They are you and me, breaking new ground as we go about our working lives, preparing a path for the next generation.