Tech & Work

Deaf techies are an untapped resource

In this era of chronic IT worker shortages, one labor segment is having a tough time getting past the interview: deaf techies. Columnist Bob Weinstein examines this situation.


Todd Hlavacek had a tough time getting a job before he was hired by Lucent Technologies. The 31-year-old software engineer, who has a master’s degree in computer science from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, NY, never expected he’d have to endure 10 job interviews before finding a company that would hire him. On paper, he looked like a perfect candidate.

But Hlavacek had one strike against him: He is deaf. And the first nine companies that interviewed him, Hlavacek claimed, didn’t want to risk hiring a deaf techie—no matter how talented he was.

He’s not alone. Deaf techies from RIT and other schools are facing the same challenge.

Allen Vaala, director of college recruiting at the Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, said that employers searching for IT workers are overlooking some of the top technical schools in the United States. He claimed that RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), where Hlavacek trained, is one of the best technical schools in the country, yet only a dozen employers visited its campus this year.

That’s pathetic, when reportedly half of all the technical openings in the United States are unfilled, and employers are pressuring Congress to increase the H-1B quota to 250,000.

Meanwhile, RIT could be a tremendous IT talent pool for companies, boasting 12,000 students—1,100 of whom are deaf.
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Not all follow Rochester’s example
Rochester is a unique city where no distinction is made between deaf and hearing people. It boasts a “deaf culture,” according to Vaala.

“Virtually all the high-tech companies in Rochester, which include the Xerox Corporation, Bausch & Lomb, and Paychex, Inc., are ‘deaf friendly,’” he said.

That’s not the case with many high-tech companies. “Most interviews ended when they found out I was deaf,” Hlavacek said. “I'd call them through a relay (a service enabling deaf and hearing people to communicate via a dual-party phone system), and when they discovered I was deaf, they'd say the position was filled.”

Hlavacek claimed that an interviewer from an international corporation became hostile when he discovered he was deaf and couldn’t enunciate words. “Not surprisingly, I never heard from them again,” he said. “For the most part, the attitude of employers toward deaf technical graduates is deplorable.”

Bruce Jones, Kodak’s IS manager of information systems for Rochester area operations, agreed with Hlavecek. “Company concerns about hiring deaf people revolve around communication and safety,” he said. “Both can be easily dealt with. You can communicate with deaf people by e-mail and through interpreters, which are easy to find. Many deaf people are excellent lip readers. As for safety, there are two-way pagers and visual alarms.”

Many companies have shied away from hiring deaf techies because of perceived stumbling blocks. The reality is that it’s easy to accommodate their needs.

Besides Rochester companies, there are others, like Lucent, that go out of their way to accommodate deaf employees and those with other special needs. “The interview at Lucent was a total reversal of what I experienced elsewhere,” Hlavacek said. “Rather than a wall of ignorance and resistance, I was welcomed, and no one looked down on me because of my deafness. They saw me as an equal regardless of my handicap.” Additionally, the interviewer was able to communicate in sign language.

“Employers don’t understand that the people they ought to be speaking to about accommodations for deaf workers are the deaf candidates themselves, by simply asking them what they need to do their job,” said Lynn Morley, senior employment specialist at NTID.

According to Morley, the mistake deaf techies make is not being open about their deafness. “If the interviewer doesn’t raise the issue, the deaf person should,” she advised. “Employers are not comfortable asking questions about deafness. So put it right on the table. Sooner or later, you’ll have to deal with it.”

Hlavacek’s advice to employers: “Deaf/hard-of-hearing candidates are just like any other hearing techies. Each has unique skills. The oft-used quote by Gallaudet University president, I. King Jordan, sums it up perfectly. ‘Deaf people can do anything but hear.’”
Has your business taken steps to make it easier for the deaf and people with other disabilities to do their jobs? Have your recruiters ever visited a specialized training facility like NTID? Start a discussion below.

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