Readers respond to "Breaking the Sound Barrier"

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We received nearly 50 responses from last month's article, Breaking the Sound Barrier, which described our trip to the National Technology Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology

Here's a typical response, which came from a person we'll call T.: "I'm a very recent graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology. I majored in information technology. I'm one of those fortunate students who have acquired a job. The interesting thing? They didn't know I was deaf when they made the offer. It is something to ponder whether or not they would have 'hired me' if they had known about my hearing impairment."

We wrote back, asking, "How did they find out you were deaf?"

T. answered: "I acquired this job by posting my resume online. I was contacted by approximately a hundred employers and was phone interviewed about four times, including an hour and a half interview with a company that did not extend an offer. (Nearly every state offers free "relay" services, which allow a hearing person to talk to a deaf person via the phone through a third party who uses a TTY device and "relays" the responses.) "All dialogue with (the company that extended the offer) took place through email as you suspected and, in order to be hired, I took a company-administered test in which the interested candidates built an online project. I just sent them an email informing them (after they had made the offer) that I was hearing impaired. They responded relating to a different issue -- not mentioning anything about the hearing impairment. Tomorrow, I'm set to show up at work to say hello to everyone in their offices." We plan to keep in touch with T. and report back on his progress.

T. voices the concern of all the professionals and students with disabilities we spoke with who wrestle with the dilemma of when to inform a potential employer about their disability. If they reveal it too early, they risk a loss of interest; if they reveal it too late, the surprise might become a problem if the company is willing to accommodate but is simply unprepared.

Unfortunately, on the other side of the coin are the recruiters who are pressured to increase their new hire numbers and consciously skip disabled candidates so they won't jeopardize their quota. "No time," they say. There are prominent consulting firms and staffing agencies whose hiring managers don't want to impose additional problems on their clients and instead pose real obstacles to recruiters who may be trying to push the envelope -- not to mention the problems they cause for the candidates.

For every bright and hopeful anecdote describing the pioneering efforts of companies like IBM, Microsoft, and many others, there are still a few dark alleys. Fortunately, technology continues to solve most of the physical and communication obstacles. The bright spots are growing brighter as knowledge resources for both employers and job seekers become easier to find and access on the Web.

The Presidents Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities (PCEPD) lists hundreds of companies in 33 states that encourage people with disabilities to apply for jobs. The PCEPD also supports business leadership networks in each state. The California Business Leaders Network is one of these state networks and was mentioned by several of our respondents. Its Website is a treasure trove of content for employers, containing lists of participating companies, local events, best practices, and other resources. We quickly followed one link to a free email to braille service, another to a registry of interpreters for the deaf, and a third to an article from an outplacement company offering advice on how to interview people with any one of half a dozen disabilities.

Job boards focusing on the disabled are growing in both number and sophistication. For years, Careers On-Line at the University of Minnesota was the most notable. More recently, publishers, career hubs, and nonprofit organizations have developed employment connections with sites like:

Additional resources that employers should become familiar with include:

On a final note, an article recently published in the Washington Post, "Agencies Act To Ease Internet Use by the Disabled," provides another excellent incentive for employers to make use of the untapped and underutilized talent pool represented by people with disabilities. Post staff writer Joan Carrie reports on the Web design standards recently issued to accommodate people with disabilities and a growing militancy aimed at companies that don't comply.

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