Breaking the sound barrier –

You might recall the scene in The Right Stuff in which Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier. Scientists and engineers feared that Yeager's life might be in danger, or that his mental capacity would be affected by the unprecedented speeds he reached. Of course, those fears dissipated immediately once the deed was accomplished.

Traveling to the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) last week brought back memories of that movie. RIT has seven colleges under its university umbrella; one of them is the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Imagine 1,100 hearing-impaired students from all areas of the United States studying a variety of technical disciplines, nearly half of them in mainstream BS programs related to engineering and computer science. The remainder pursue associate's degrees in such fields as computer technology, printing, manufacturing technology, and office automation. It's the largest program of its kind in the US.

There are 22 million deaf and hearing-impaired people in the US. The students at RIT use signing, interpreters, lip reading, email, pieces of paper, and a half-dozen other means to get their ideas across; but with few exceptions speech isn't one of their chosen methods of communication.

After hearing predictions that half of all the technical openings in the US are going unfilled and watching companies desperately try to find, steal, or train qualified technical professionals, Mark and I were fascinated to find such a large, undeveloped resource pool. We found it interesting that, as employers press Congress to increase the H-1B quota to 250,000, hire students away from college before they've graduated, and offer extended technical training to those with nontechnical degrees, NTID only had about a dozen employers visit their campus this past year. Another couple dozen asked for résumés to be sent. What's wrong with this picture?

The most memorable part of our visit to NTID was the 90 minutes we spent with current students and recent graduates. Among the graduates, half were still looking for a job. One was starting this month as a programmer with IBM. Another was working in a Web-design group at Kodak. It was apparent after a very short time that each was an expert in overcoming obstacles.

There were two interpreters in our room and, prior to coming to NTID, we read up on how to interview someone who was deaf. I have to admit that everything I read about communicating with a deaf person wasn't common sense, and that looking at the person speaking/signing, and not at the interpreter, wasn't easy at first. (NTID has some excellent tips on interviewing and orienting someone whom is deaf or hard of hearing.)

We asked the students if they had indicated that they were deaf on their résumés when they applied for jobs. They were aghast, pointing out that our suggestion would result in zero responses. They generally state that their degrees are from RIT/NTID and indicate a preference for communication via email. A couple indicated TTY capability when putting down a phone number, but most left it off. Imagine the surprise for the recruiter.

We got our most telling response when we asked the students how recruiters reacted to them upon learning that they were deaf. The spontaneous laughter was followed by an agreement that "they just don't get it." "Some recruiters ask us if we are bringing an interpreter with us," said one student. Another chimed in that "they almost never ask us about our skills. Instead, they want to know how we would expect to handle communicating with the hearing."

Back home, we called 20 technical recruiting managers to see if they were aware of NTID. Two were. One had hired a co-op (once) and said that "it was difficult."

However, several companies have reaped great benefits by taking the time to overcome the obstacles of the hearing impaired. Technology solutions can overcome most communication difficulties. The reward: a new source of talent.

The effort required to break the sound barrier is not a trivial problem, but the perception of the barrier itself is the biggest obstacle. Expanding our notion of an applicant pool to include everyone with the necessary skills is an exciting prospect for some and beyond the reach of others. As we equip our employees with increasingly sophisticated tools for work, perhaps we should consider whether access is an issue, whether dealing with people with disabilities is more (or less) an accommodation than an adjustment. Someday, we may even reach for the speed of light.

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