The topic of diversity and inclusion is gaining traction across the corporate world and continues to trend on social media. Major global companies have launched admirable initiatives — including Rooney Rule-type measures to guarantee that prospective hires from underrepresented backgrounds interview for leadership positions.
But for some segments of the workforce, is it just lip service?
In the United States, over 20% of the population identified as having a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) includes people who are Deaf and hard of hearing as part of that population, even though many wouldn’t self-identify as “disabled.” A report by the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes found that only 53.3% of Deaf people aged 25–64 were employed compared to 75.8% of hearing people — an employment gap of 22.5%.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was supposed to level the playing field and eliminate discriminatory hiring practices on the basis of disability. The landmark 1990 legislation requires companies with more than 15 employees to offer reasonable accommodations. In some states, such as California, the requirement applies to companies with over five employees. But according to Shandra Benito, Executive Director of Art Access, a Salt Lake City-based disability rights nonprofit founded in 1984, forcing companies to be more ADA-compliant is only one piece of the puzzle.
“It’s a way to light a fire, but the laws aren’t best practices and there’s a big difference,” Benito, 29, who is Deaf, says. “An organization with 15 or less employees often doesn’t have to do anything. That doesn’t mean they can’t afford it or don’t need it. It just means that it took a lot of negotiation in order to get the law passed as written.”
A Mindset for Accessibility
With her advocacy work for Art Access, Benito is on the frontlines helping arts organizations improve their accessibility efforts. Benito recounted an experience pushing a Salt Lake City Film Center to invest in captioning and listening devices to underscore what’s at stake for businesses.
“A major donor came in who sees three films a week,” she says. “The donor came up and asked for a listening device. Nobody even knew she was hard of hearing. So people that you don’t know are going to benefit from it.
When considering accessibility, it’s hard to know who has an “invisible disability”. What often happens is — because of how many inaccessible experiences a consumer has — they stop going and stop applying for jobs at certain organizations if it doesn’t seem accessible. It’s an investment and it’s worth the investment.”
What makes it worth the investment, Benito says, is that the benefits clearly outweigh apprehensions around cost. It’s just a matter of building those costs into budgets.
“Things cost money. We don’t look at chairs and say, how much will it cost us to provide chairs for the next five years? Maybe we should ask our employees to stand. Because we’ve accepted those things as hard costs. We’ve just accepted that and built into our budgets. It’s the same for maintenance and upkeep of materials. People need that mindset for accessibility.”
Seek, Accommodate, Hire, Promote
The bottomline argument for businesses is a compelling one, Howard A. Rosenblum, National Association of the Deaf (NAD) CEO, agrees. With more than 466 million Deaf and hard of hearing people in the world, it’s a market and talent pool that shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, there is a great deal to be realized by hiring DHH employees. The issue could be reframed using what some in Deaf culture call “Deaf Gain” rather than a sensory loss — that deafness or those with “hearing loss” offer richer experiences and diversity to those around them.
“Hiring Deaf and hard of hearing employees would help any business ensure that the business is able to penetrate that market,” Rosenblum says. “Even apart from that, there are many highly qualified Deaf and hard of hearing people who have skills that would contribute to the success of any business. The optimal way to recruit and retain such Deaf and hard of hearing employees would be to make the hiring process and the workplace inclusive.”
However, Rosenblum notes, companies undervaluing and discriminating against Deaf and hard of hearing employees persists. A prominent example can be found in the trucking industry. Despite a severe shortage of drivers, many companies won’t hire Deaf drivers despite plenty of data certifying that Deaf drivers are equally as capable as hearing drivers.
“Deaf and hard of hearing people are, like everyone else, seeking jobs in a variety of careers,” says Rosenblum, “and we need employers to seek us, accommodate us, hire us, and promote us.”
Building a Culture of Accessibility
Ashley Derrington, 30, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and consultant with bi-lateral severe hearing loss, agrees that Deaf and hard of hearing employees are like everyone else, but also have unique perspectives and abilities employers should welcome, not fear.
“The only thing we can’t do is hear,” Derrington, who also plays for the USA National Women’s Deaf Soccer Team, says. “It doesn’t mean we can’t do everything else. Some of the best ideas are going to come from people who aren’t like you. That’s something that a lot of companies just don’t realize. We’ve been conforming to a world that’s not built for us. We work harder than most people probably do. There’s apprehension around taking a chance, but that’s the type of people businesses would be hiring.”
The first steps businesses should take, Rosenblum says, involves situating the right stakeholders in strategic positions companywide.
“Creating inclusiveness requires interactivity and not paternalism,” he says. “Businesses should look at whether their Human Resources department can hire people who have the training and connections to increase inclusiveness for this population, preferably people who are Deaf or hard of hearing or might have a disability. As an alternative, the business could retain consultants, preferably Deaf or hard of hearing ones, that can work with their Human Resources to be more inclusive in their hiring and retention practices.”
Benito puts it more bluntly. “This is cultural,” she says. “A culture of compliance is never what we’re aiming for. We’re aiming for a culture of accessibility.”