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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Can You Hear Me Now?

I was in New Mexico, a gem of a state, earlier this month, when the local Albuquerque weather man mentioned for a brief second that October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.  This is an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, and this is its purpose.

Held each October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is a national campaign that raises awareness about disability employment issues and celebrates the many and varied contributions of America's workers with disabilities. (http://www.dol.gov/odep/topics/ndeam/)

To put this into perspective, take a look at the September 2012's employment numbers.
Labor Force Participation
People with disabilities: 21.9% 
People without disabilities: 69.3%

Unemployment Rate
People with disabilities: 13.5%
People without disabilities: 7.3% 


Back to the DOL's Month of Awareness   

How great is this that we are celebrating me! I have a disability.  It isn’t an obvious disability, but I am partially deaf.  To answer the most common questions, I was not born deaf.  It happened in my late 20’s.  The docs say that part of it is hereditary, which I have had surgery to try to correct (Thanks, gene pool!). Part of it is nerve damage that cannot be corrected (Thanks, Sony Walkman from the mid- 90s!).  The other question asked is will it get any worse. The docs tell me the loss is stable for now, and any subsequent hearing loss will probably be due to the natural aging process (Thanks, Mother Nature!).

My left ear is decent, and I do not wear a hearing aid.  My right ear without my hearing aid is, to use the phrase of the Sopranos, “Forget about it!”  Even with the hearing aid, some things challenge me in both ears.  But I still love my work, I live life pretty much the same as I did before my hearing started to go, and I feel I have much left to contribute to the world.   

How Does This Affect My Work?

In the two main jobs of my consulting business, as a facilitator and an instructional designer, overall not much.  Certainly, being in a class environment provides more challenges, but I have adapted.  One, I move around the room a lot to get close to the speaker. That helps me, and it also makes me look like an amazing facilitator with this insane level of energy as I jump around the room in order to hear the responses of the class.  Next, I ask repeatedly, “What was that?”, which a full hearing person would ask as well in a large room with large group of people

As an instructional designer, it doesn’t matter at all. Instructional design works requires me to research the subject matter, formulate teaching strategies, and finally capture them in usually some electronic form.  These are typically one-on-one conversations or individual work.  Sometimes when working alone I wear those darn headphones again.   I just seem to get more done when “You Should Be Dancing” plays on the iPod.

But I wouldn’t say that it hasn’t affected me at all in the workplace.  I definitely had a more challenging time when I worked in the corporate world.  Meetings were difficult for me.  In meetings the expectation was to speak up immediately to react to something said.  That was difficult for me to be in one physical spot in a room of 6 to 10 people, so I was quite quiet in that environment.  Also, whispering is impossible for me to hear, and there is much of that in the physical space of a cubicle farm.  I don’t tend to react to something said under a certain decibel. 

I believe my professional reputation leaned more towards aloofness and introversion, and many times it was mostly I did not hear things in real time.  I cared deeply about what I did, and had opinions, but to answer within a few seconds to something said wasn’t something I could do.   Also, with deafness, I don’t know what I miss, so I might have not heard something critical, but there was no way for me to know that until it showed up in the future. (Yikes!  The few times that occurred.)     

But Enough About Me

I think of the many talented people who are not participating in the workforce facing similar challenges.  I have a friend with autistic children.  Their disability is not Rain Man severe, just to use a common frame of reference,  but it does affect them.  They are smart, funny, gifted girls, who have some cognitive challenges with reading and processing information.  What is going to happen to them when it is time for them to work?  If someone doesn't hire them, then what are they going to do with their days?  For income?     

For me, since my disability can't be seen, most people did not realize I had a problem, and no one treated me differently. On one hand that is what I wanted, but then on the other hand that was a problem in itself.  Then I think about the people with disabilities that are easy to see, making employers more cautious of hiring them.  They look different with a physical disability, or they act different because of a mental disability.  We all come to the hiring and promoting process with biases, and it is unrealistic to think we do not.  Legally, we cannot overtly discriminate (this is a good thing), but we do so subtly. 

My question to you, what does your leadership team look like?  Do you have anyone with a disability, or something that makes them different? We tend to hire and promote people like ourselves, and if you do not have a disability or know of someone with one, it is only natural to unconsciously bias ourselves.  I am not saying it is done maliciously, we are simply human.  We must fight this.  

We at The Customer Service Gurus support the Wounder Warrior Project (www.woundedwarriorproject.org) and The Adult Literacy League (www.adultliteracyleague.org ) primarily because of the work both organizations do to help people with disabilities increase their chances of employment, and of course all the other amazing work they do.   We encourage you to also support these organizations.

Final Thoughts 

I cannot speak on behalf of all people with disabilities, but in general I think the desires are the same as anyone without a disability.  We want to fully participate in life to the best of our abilities, which includes working.  It isn't something special being looking for, but it is a sense of partnership between employee and employer to work together.  That whatever can be done is done to make a person with a disability no different than any other employee.

My opinion is employers see the ADA (American Disability Act) as one more thing that is a nuisance to their organizations, instead of seeing it as a way to access a credible and dedicated resource of talent.  If it takes a wheelchair ramp to have a successful long-term hire, then why not do it?

Also, this is the right thing to do because of karma.  It is very possible at some point you will be the person with the disability, or it will affect someone you care about.  A car accident or illness could change your ability to function in an instance.  Your cognitive and physical abilities may deteriorate with age, and you won't be able to perform your job exactly the way you do today.  Shouldn't we live in a world where accommodations are made to help you make a livelihood as long as possible, and as long as you choose to do so?  

This year's theme for National Disability Employment Awareness Month is "A Strong Workforce is an Inclusive Workforce: What Can YOU Do?"  So what can you do?  What will you do?  Decide today to something.  If you have any questions about my disability or I can help in anyway, as always I am happy to. My email is stacey@thecustomerservicegurus.com. 


Take care until next time!