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 href="http://www.rit.edu/%7E435www/new_employer_page/one_to_one.html">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
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.