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The Ambassador Effect

Employment Matters column,

For deaf and hard of hearing people who are involved with the deaf community every day, it can be easy to forget just how rare it is for a hearing person to meet someone who is deaf. Many hearing people go their entire lives without meeting anyone who is profoundly deaf; when it happens, they’re often nervous and unsure what to do.

They’re not sure what a deaf person can do, they’re not sure what is the best way to communicate, they’re not sure what’s appropriate and what isn’t.

So those of us who are familiar with or part of the deaf community spend a lot of time and energy on education. This demands patience, too, because the education process can be a rough ride, filled with confusion, misunderstanding and ignorance. Replacing ignorance with understanding is our goal, and nowhere is it more important than the workplace.

While some deaf workers are fortunate enough to find jobs where they have deaf co-workers, not everyone is so lucky. More often, deaf and hard of hearing workers are surrounded by an all-hearing staff.

If this is your situation, remember; to many of those hearing people, you are the only deaf person in the world they know, or the only one they meet up close and personal. Their ideas about deaf people will be based on their experience with you. You have become, in effect, a deaf community ambassador to your hearing co-workers.

If you are lazy, then they’ll presume most or all deaf people are lazy. If you are a fast learner, they’ll have a more positive view of deaf people. If you are consistently dependable or chronically late, a person who gets the job done or makes excuses – whatever you are, your personality and ability will color the attitudes of all the hearing people you work with and affect how they deal with every deaf person they meet afterward.

Fair? Of course not. But it’s human nature, and we have to deal with it as it is. The way to deal with it is to rise to the challenge and become the best ambassadors we can be. If you have a job, remember those who are unable to get a job because the hearing employers they’ve met didn’t believe they could do it.

Think about other deaf and hard of hearing workers who can’t move up to a more advanced position because their employers aren’t sure they can handle it. Show them you can. Consider your own self-interest too; when you move on to another job, how will your boss describe you to another employer? Will they express disappointment or surprise and awe?

You are proof that deaf people can. Make the most of it.

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 12:44 am

Should Your Resume Reveal You’re Deaf?

Employment Matters column,

Years ago, Gallaudet University offered a course on professional development, taught by a team of two teachers associated with the Experiential Program Off Campus (EPOC). I took that course, which dealt with the sort of things one might expect when making the transition from the sheltered world of a college campus to the “real world”, the one our parents warned us about.

We spent some of the course time discussing our resumes. Being college students, we didn’t really have one – some of us had a few summer jobs to list, a few held real jobs while saving money for college.

One of the students brought up a question many of us were thinking – would mentioning we are deaf on our resumes affect our chances of getting a job? The teachers looked at each other sadly, then to us. They knew very well all of us in the classroom were proud of being Deaf, that it wasn’t something we felt we should hide.

Then they told us we needed to do exactly that. And they should know – they had a lot of “real world” experience in helping deaf students find work. They delivered this news without enthusiasm, and the class took it with mixed feelings.

In our hearts we wanted to stand tall and be who we are. But we also recognized a cold truth – most hearing employers, faced with a choice between two equally qualified job applicants, will choose a hearing worker over a deaf worker.

If you submit a resume that doesn’t include any obvious references to being deaf, this creates an interesting situation when you are contacted by the employer for an interview. In some cases, you can respond by e-mail and still not reveal that you’re deaf.

If you take it one step further and hire your own interpreter for the interview, the employer doesn’t know you’re deaf until you actually show up for the interview.

If you’ve gotten that far, then obviously the employer considers you qualified enough to invite you to interview for the job. That’s an important point to establish. If you request an interpreter for an interview, then there’s always the possibility that the job will suddenly be filled by another candidate, and you are left with the strong suspicion, but not certainty, of discrimination.

If your potential employer learns in advance of an interview that you’re deaf, then you have no way of knowing what decisions are made behind closed doors. There are, of course, enlightened employers who will go forward with an interview and consider your application seriously.

There are others who will go through the motions of an interview with no intention of hiring you, but do the interview to give themselves legal protection. I’ve been in both situations, and only their attitude during the interview may give you a sense of what’s happening.

Is it deceptive when you make no mention of being deaf?

Some employers may see it that way, but it really shouldn’t matter if you’re qualified. If the question comes up during an interview, you can point out that you should be able to approach an interview on a level playing field with hearing applicants, and being deaf doesn’t enter into it. If the employer disagrees, that’s bald discrimination.

Of course none of this applies when you are seeking deaf-related work. In that situation, your experience in the deaf community becomes an advantage. Now the roles are reversed – given a choice between equally qualified hearing and deaf applicants, the deaf applicant has an edge.

If, like me, your work experience is deeply rooted in the deaf community, then there’s no way to avoid it – it will be clear on your resume. In my case, that’s fine. I’ve worked for hearing employers and in workplaces with many deaf employees, and I prefer deaf-related work. This sometimes means fewer opportunities and less pay, but a more satisfying work experience.

But every one seeking work has to choose for himself/herself, and think about what strategies will get them from where they are to where they want to be. Regardless of what you choose to do before the interview, go into it with confidence. Stand tall and be proud of who you are – that attitude is the secret sauce to winning the job.

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 12:37 am

The Fear Factor

Employment Matters column,

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when my fear is gone, I will turn and face fear’s path and only I will remain.”

– Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, Dune, 1965

Has fear ever stopped you from starting something you wanted to do? You might not always recognize fear for what it is, because it gets buried under layers of other rationales – you’re too busy, you’re missing a key part or person or tool to get something done. Fear can lurk inside many other reasons and excuses, and this fear will send you running from a specific enemy – the fear of failure.

It’s very easy to sugarcoat our fears with perfectly valid reasons for not acting. Reaching any big goal will require effort, passage through many hurdles, and perhaps frustration, too. Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, recently said that transforming a dream into reality is never a full implementation, because it’s much easier to dream than make things real.

Failure can have painful consequences, and fear is a reasonable response to that possibility. But fear can also be like your shadow in late evening – long, exaggerated, distorted, and not at all as scary as you thought.

Take a look at the things you want to accomplish, and the reasons why they haven’t been done. Strip away the excuses and ask yourself if fear is the core reason for inaction. Make a little list of things you haven’t done due to fear. Are you afraid of some things because you’ve tried and failed before? They go on the list too.

Now take a hard look at your list. This is where we face our fear. This is where we decide what we really want. You may discard some goals because you don’t desire them as strongly as you once did. Maybe that career in firefighting isn’t quite as attractive as it seemed when you were 10 years old. Fine – toss it.

Or maybe now, as an adult, you’re looked at a range of things you wanted to do and decided that some of them were simply too costly in terms of time and money, that your energies would be better invested in other directions. That’s reasonable too. But in looking over your list, isolate those things that you’re not achieving due to fear.

Fear can affect every aspect of your life, but our focus here is on employment and business. Whatever else you’re afraid of, work-related fears can directly affect your income and thus have a much bigger impact on your life than many other fears. Everyone’s situation is different, so you’re the best person to sort through your fears and figure out how to knock them down.

But first you have to make up your mind that you want to knock them down. You must have resolve. Without a commitment and determination, your fears will walk all over you. So let’s consider some things that need attention.

Are you afraid you don’t know enough to succeed? The answer to this one is simple – more training, more education. Did you try to learn before and fail? Get up and try again. If you want something badly enough, this is the only way. You do not give up. You fall down six times, you get up seven times. You keep moving toward your goal, you find a way, until you reach it.

Does reaching your goal feel like a gamble? Maybe it is a gamble, but if you don’t bet, you can’t win. What you can do is examine the risks surrounding your goal and work out ways to reduce those risks, or reduce the impact if you gamble and lose. Have a Plan B when Plan A doesn’t work out. Partner with other people and spread the risk.

Whether you want a better job or think about running your own business, fear is one of the hurdles you’ll have to jump over. Fear can appear anytime – you may start out confident and later feel like you’re in over your head. You may face a crisis and feel panicked. When fear strikes – and it will – recognize it for what it is and face it. Make the path yours – don’t let fear make it for you.

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 12:30 am

Take the Money and Learn

Employment Matters column,

It used to be said that when America catches a cold, the rest of the world gets the flu. That was a common understanding at a time when American wealth and power were at its peak. When the American economy weakened, the rest of the world was hit hard.

That has changed. American factories have moved to other countries, the American dollar is not as strong as it once was, and the national debt has knocked the budget far out of balance. We’re feeling the effects now at the gas pump and the grocery store.

It’s clear the U.S. economy has entered a recession, with major banks and corporations failing or in trouble. Applications for unemployment benefits are rising. Unemployment numbers are considered “lagging indicators” – that is, when there’s a parade of bad news, unemployment numbers are at the back of the parade. Unemployment is a reaction to other things happening first, and we can realistically expect these numbers will become worse before they get better.

When the hearing world catches a cold, the deaf community gets the flu. The recession among hearing workers now amounts to a depression for deaf workers. Those who already have jobs are the lucky ones.

We’re going through a period when some of us will lose our jobs, and those who are looking for work will have a much harder time finding it. We’re in for a tough time, and it could get ugly.

We can’t predict how long it might last. We can predict that applications for SSI and SSDI will rise. That safety net is available for deaf workers. But there’s a stigma attached to SSI and SSDI benefits, because we all know someone who has abused the system. We all know some deaf people who could work, but have gotten too comfortable collecting free money and staying at home.

It’s reasonable to scorn this behavior– anyone who CAN work, SHOULD work. But there are times when perfectly capable people are unable to get work, and this happens to deaf workers even in the best of times. Now, as we enter an era of uncertainty, some of you are starting to wonder if SSI or SSDI is an option, but worry about what your friends and family will think.

I know how it feels– been there. Years ago I faced a situation where I was single, unemployed, and responsible for two young children. I had no car and no home. That was a pretty deep hole to climb out of.

I applied and received SSDI benefits, then slowly, painfully, began gathering things I needed to get back to work. I knew computers, but I didn’t have one. I found one for sale cheap – not fast, not powerful, but it worked. Then I began writing for some extra income. That meant we could meet basic expenses, but certainly didn’t leave enough to consider getting a car or go to school. So – again, slowly – I taught myself how to develop websites. It took awhile, but I worked up to doing them professionally, and earned a pretty good living doing that for the next five years. I didn’t need SSDI anymore, and I easily paid enough in income taxes in later years to cover what I’d received in benefits.

I’m sharing this not to boast, but to point out the value of using the time you’re out of work productively. The single most important thing you can do while not working is to learn. The more skills you acquire, the more knowledge you have, the more confidence you gain. And that really matters when you’re down and out of the workforce. Keep your spirits up, keep feeding your feelings of self-worth. That’s just as important as breathing and eating well. When the economic winter is over and springtime returns, you’ll be ready to take advantage of new opportunities.

If SSI or SSDI benefits make it possible for you to learn during times of unemployment, then don’t be shy about signing up for benefits. Just remember that you’ve still got a job to do – learn – and think of your benefits as payment for your work. Then work your way up to a better deal, with more income, so you don’t need SSI or SSDI anymore.

It’s nice to have a safety net, but success is even better.

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 12:27 am

Gone in 30 Seconds

Employment Matters column,

Imagine you are a manager. Someone on your team has moved, leaving a hole you must fill by hiring a replacement. The position pays well, and you get resumes from over 200 people. Now, in addition to doing all of your regular work, you must plow through that stack of resumes to find the person who will be your next team member. How are you going to do it?

You have one position and 200 applicants. While you are ultimately looking for someone to hire, to get there you must first eliminate 199 others. So right from the start, the applicant’s first priority is to not get eliminated. How?

While the applicant has plenty of time to worry over and fine-tune every detail of a resume, a hiring manager doesn’t have the luxury of time to appreciate all the details.

It’s a bit like driving on a crowded highway looking for a particular type of car. Maybe you’re looking for a Chrysler Sebring convertible. You might see dozens of Chryslers, you might see four or five convertibles, you might even see a couple of Sebring convertibles. How much detail will you remember about the hundreds of other cars you looked at? Not much.

Clearly, people not truly qualified for a position will be the first to hit the circular file. If the job requires you have a degree, and you don’t – hasta la vista, baby.

But let’s say a large number of people are actually qualified, and you’re one of them. How much time do you have to stand out in the crowd?

About 30 seconds. 30 seconds to get someone’s attention in a positive way. 30 seconds to impress someone who has the power to change your life. 30 seconds to stand out from the crowd – or you’re gone.

It’s not a coincidence that many TV commercials run for 30 seconds. That’s about how long you can expect to hold on to someone’s attention and convince them you have something they need or want. If you make it through that first 30 seconds and you still have their attention, congratulations – you’re a contender.

Your first task as an applicant is also a process of elimination. Go through your resume and make sure information relevant to the job you’re applying for is front and center. Don’t make the hiring manager look for it – or you’re history.

Anything unrelated to this job’s qualifications should not show up in the first 30 seconds of review. That can come later. If you’re just starting out in the working world and don’t have a wealth of experience to share, focus on your relevant personal qualities – the ability to remain focused, your amazing skill at reading people and communicating clearly, your commitment to following through to the end of a project.

If you do have a deep background to show off, great – but keep it simple. Bullet points are your friends. Right now your aim is to present the outline of a person well-matched to the job description.

It may seem unfair to have only 30 seconds to make your case, especially after spending years preparing through education, internships, and previous experience. But there’s no point in getting emotional about it. Just recognize that’s the way it is and craft your resume for maximum impact in a short span.

Do that well, and you can leave your competition in the rear-view mirror.

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 12:19 am

The Biology of Deafness

Employment Matters column,

According to the biology departments at Gallaudet University and the Medical College of Virgina, at least 85% of deaf people will marry another deaf person.

Many of those marriages will eventually include children, and if their parents became deaf by genetic causes, there’s certainly a chance of the children being deaf too. Among the general population, about 1 in 1,000 children in the US is born profoundly deaf.

About half of all deaf people are genetically deaf, and the other half became deaf through environmental causes. Environmental causes include premature birth, viruses that reach the fetus, and certain drugs that can affect the fetus.

Genes come with on/off switches, so not all genes are working all the time. Some genes are only read during fetal development, others during puberty, and others can be on or off depending on the activity of other genes or the environment.

The genes that cause deafness can be either dominant or recessive. If a gene is dominant, it will be active when only one copy of the gene is present. Recessive genes are only active when two copies are present.

Everyone gets genes from both parents. Dominant genes for deafness can come from either parent, but a recessive gene for deafness means both parents must pass it on for that gene to be active.

Most genetically deaf people inherit recessive genes, which is why deafness can sometimes skip generations – childen may get only one recessive gene from their parents, and so become carriers of the deafness gene, but they won’t be deaf themselves.

Working out how genes interact with each other and the environment is an extremely complex subject, and there are at least several hundred genetic changes that can lead to deafness. But just a few common causes dominate the list. You probably know of some of them, either from personal experience or through people you know.

Genetic causes for deafness are grouped in two ways. One group is linked with other traits, or syndromes. In the second group, deafness appears unrelated to anything else.

The first, syndromic group, include Usher’s, Waardenburg and Pendred syndrome. One feature of Waardenburg is a forelock of white hair, so if you’ve seen that, you’ve seen an example of syndromic deafness. These forms of deafness arise when mutations in a gene or a group of genes affect more than just hearing.

Genes provide instructions – you can think of it as a recipe – for making proteins. Our bodies use some proteins for more than one purpose. If a mutation affects one of these multi-purpose proteins, the effect shows up as a syndrome. Different areas of the body feel the impact of the missing or incomplete protein.

There are also at least 30 genetic causes of deafness that are not apparent through appearance or other issues. Most deaf people – 70 to 80% – are in this group. Of the major causes in this group is a mutation of the GJB2 gene.

This gene makes a protein called connexin 26, which makes a critical part need by cells to communicate with neighboring cells. This communication trouble at the cellular level scales all the way up to the whole individual!

Many genes in both groups have been mapped – their locations are precisely known, and tests for some are available. Some genes are so large that testing them for deafness-related mutations is too expensive, but among the smaller and well-known deafness genes, it’s possible to arrange tests. There are still some genetic causes of deafness where the location of the gene remains a mystery.

Both genes and our environment have a powerful influence on the people we become. But in the end, how we play the environmental and genetic cards we’re dealt has the greatest impact on our lives. The actions we take and the choices we make define us more than anything else.

Related Links:

Hereditary Hearing Loss Homepage

Deafness and Hereditary Hearing Loss Overview

Chart of Inheritance Percentages

Basic deaf-related Genetics

Nonsyndromic Deafness

Finding Genes for Non-Syndromic Deafness

Deafness-related Gene Testing

Written by Influential Prose

September 30, 2009 at 11:54 pm

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.

Written by Influential Prose

September 30, 2009 at 11:33 pm

Do You Need to Step Away From Your Job?

Employment Matters column,

Although work is one of the most important things we do in our daily lives, there are times when we need to step away from it. Vacations are an obvious example, but there also times – say, for medical reasons – when we cannot work. Recovering from an injury or illness, caring for a newborn baby, or assisting a family member during a medical crisis – dealing with any of these can require weeks or months.

Coping with the loss of income is stressful enough all by itself – imagine worrying about losing your job, too. Before 1993, that was a real possibility. President Bill Clinton signed a new law that year called the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The most important part of the law is that it provides workers the option of taking up to 12 weeks unpaid leave off from work each year.

After taking medical leave, employers are required to let workers return to their jobs, or to a similar job with the same pay, responsibilities and benefits. The law also prohibits retaliation against workers who take advantage of the FMLA.

Before the FMLA, there was the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which sought to assure that mothers would have a job waiting for them after childbirth, recovery and bonding time.

Critics pointed out that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act benefited only female workers, and argued it would lead to subtle workplace discrimination against women. In response to that concern, the FMLA clearly states that spouses can also take leave for medical events when their assistance as caregivers is needed. This makes the FMLA gender neutral.

The FMLA can be used:

  • for the birth and care of the newborn child of the employee;
    for placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care;
  • to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
  • to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.
  • Beginning January 16, 2009, military families will also enjoy protection under the FMLA:

(1) Up to 12 weeks of leave for certain qualifying exigencies arising out of a covered military member’s active duty status, or notification of an impending call or order to active duty status, in support of a contingency operation, and

(2) Up to 26 weeks of leave in a single 12-month period to care for a covered servicemember recovering from a serious injury or illness incurred in the line of duty on active duty. Eligible employees are entitled to a combined total of up to 26 weeks of all types of FMLA leave during the single 12-month period.

So what does “up to” 12 weeks mean? It means you can 12 unpaid weeks off from work, but you don’t have to take all of it. You can also choose to take it in pieces – two weeks here, two weeks there, for example – but you must have an agreement with your employer about the schedule for time off if you choose to do it that way.

With all this legal protection, can you still be let go after taking FMLA leave? It depends. There are exceptions in the law:

Salaried, “key” employees can’t be denied leave, but they’re not guaranteed to get their job back.

  • If there is a general layoff at your workplace – and that may become more common in the months ahead – you can be laid off too, regardless of your FMLA status.
  • If you are asked for medical certification of a condition and don’t provide it, your employer is not required to take you back.
  • If you run through your 12 weeks and can’t return to work afterward, your job is no longer guaranteed.

If you work for a vindictive boss, then yes, you could be dismissed. Some employers can be devious about citing unrelated reasons for dismissal. A good lawyer can deal with that, but it’s a process that takes time. When there are bills to pay and mouths to feed, you may not have the luxury of time.

If you have a good relationship with your company and you need time away under the FMLA, talk it over with your supervisor. Chances are good you can work something out. Employers understand that even their most valued employees have lives and sometimes life hits you with surprises. The FMLA gives you time to get everything back on track and return to work with a clear mind.

Related Links:

Department of Labor’s FMLA Frequently Asked Questions

Department of Labor’s FMLA site

Department of Labor’s FMLA Final Rule site

Written by Influential Prose

September 29, 2009 at 5:16 pm