Crucial practices from top diversity, inclusion and equity HR professionals — and the impact on Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.
Back in 2019, Amanda Koller told NPR she had applied to over 1,100 jobs in the past year. Despite two master’s degrees, Koller, who is Deaf and lives outside Washington, D.C., didn’t land a single offer. “If you can’t hear or speak right, you’re not going to get a job,” she said at the time.
Shortly after those comments, the world was besieged by a global pandemic; and accounts like Koller’s remain anything but rare. A staggering 42.9%* of Deaf people have completely opted out of the labor force, more than double the rate of hearing people.
Now, companies across the United States are spending big in an attempt to rectify past wrongs. The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) estimates that companies now spend $8 billion** annually on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training.
But who are the DEI hiring professionals and consultants on the other end of that spending? What are their day-to-day priorities?
From Activist to DEI Talent Acquisition
For 63-year-old Lutchman Perumal, a former teacher and anti-apartheid activist in his native South Africa, the passion he brings to his role as Deputy Director of Talent Acquisition at Public Health Institute — and head of its DEI working group — is a flame lit long ago.
“Growing up in Capetown during apartheid, my activism there gave me the will to fight for radical change and justice,” Perumal said. “It’s a big reason why I do what I do today.”
In 1995, shortly after the election of Nelson Mandela, Perumal accepted a human resources position at Boeing in Texas to help bolster their diversity initiatives. For Perumal, the job fit like a glove.
“I fell in love with the work instantly,” he said. “There are myriad benefits in leveraging differences, creating equity, so that when you speak to your customers there’s that sense of depth in what you have to offer as a company. My time at Boeing helped me to find a voice for this type of work that can really bring about change, and help improve the experience in the workplace for others.”
Today, in his DEI work with the Public Health Institute, Perumal offers recommendations, helps set hiring and retention goals, proposes initiatives, and develops budget plans for outside consultants. What drives him day in and day out? Getting leadership to be comfortable with their discomfort.
“Race, gender, and ability can be uncomfortable to talk about,” he said. “So a reframing is necessary, and we want leadership to think about these things in the context of employment and opportunity. That means looking at historical systems that have framed our thinking, consciously or unconsciously, and bringing proposals to turn the tide.”
DEI Can Shed Light on the Deaf Experience
Norma Morán is a Washington D.C.-based accredited DEI consultant. She provides corporate training and delivers educational presentations to a variety of organizations and institutions. Morán, who is Deaf, focuses on illuminating the harm of historical systems that have hampered the employment opportunities of vulnerable communities — including her own.
“Within the DEI field, communication access and audism remain mostly unknown to the majority of the workforce and other hearing DEI experts and consultants,” she said. “Intersectionality in connection to the Deaf experience is not widely understood or recognized. It’s common to see organizations segment their DEI efforts at the cost of excluding other underrepresented communities, especially Deaf and hard-of-hearing folks.”
In much of her DEI consultancy work, Morán claimed she spends a considerable amount of time walking through “the basics’ of inclusive practices for Deaf and hard-of-hearing folks. Recently, Morán spent time consulting her hometown’s city council.
“[They] did not understand the concept of communication access during their council meetings on Zoom,” she said. “Generally, organizations need support in understanding the concept of ensuring communication access for their Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees. They usually need to learn the basics, such as the types of access — sign language interpreting, CART, captioning, or providing transcripts.”
Process Over Outcomes in DEI
During the pandemic, Sarah Cohen has taken her background in differentiated and special education and applied it to DEI consultant work. Through a New York City-based DEI consultancy firm, Sarah Cohen has led training sessions for clients like Spotify and Spektrix. While advising companies, much like her work in the classroom, Cohen said she favors process over payoff.
“The sessions were not exclusively strategy-focused,” she said. “We would generally say the process is the outcome. It’s not setting out to solve systemic issues in one go, but just to crack open difficult conversations.”
In an effort to try and put employees on a path toward fostering more inclusive workspaces, Cohen emphasizes placing personal narratives front and center. She tries to get employees of all stripes, including Deaf and hard-of-hearing folks, sharing their stories.
“I think the way that you actually start to change hearts and minds is when your colleague is telling you an experience of their own,” she said. “It’s hard to ignore an experience of exclusion, racism, ableism, or audism when someone who you’re in meetings with every day is sharing about that. You can’t force or impose goals on adults. They have to come to them themselves; and in conversation, they might start to chip away at some of their long-held beliefs.”
DEI Consultants Sharing Their Stories
Catarina Rivera, founder of Blindish Latina — a platform that smashes disability stigmas through storytelling, advocacy, and education — trains and consults with employee groups for DEI initiatives at large tech companies (see our post: “Meet 3 Deaf & HOH Professionals Doing Big Things in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” for more on Catarina Rivera). In her consultancy offerings, Rivera, who has a combination of progressive vision loss and moderate-to-severe hearing loss, feels a duty to share her own story.
“I share my own life with participants and companies I work with,” she said. “I feel like it gives me a unique passion and strength from where I can do this work, because I didn’t see myself in these companies. But I’m here now. So, I feel so strongly that I’m out here to be that representation.”
Rivera’s work leaves her optimistic about the future of DEI’s impact on companies. Ultimately, she believes DEI work’s impact on the bottomline of businesses and work cultures is too clear to ignore.
“What’s one of the biggest business reasons for diversity, equity, and inclusion? I talk at length about how they are going to be more innovative, creative, and successful, because of the diverse viewpoints,” she said. “Ultimately, if you have a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace, then it’s going to be a great place to work.”