My mother is deaf and my father is hard-of-hearing. As a CODA (child of a deaf adult), I spent most of my childhood attending deaf clubs in churches and annual deaf festivals at New York City’s South Street Seaport.

Looking for jobs is challenging for anybody, but especially if you're deaf. Check out these tips and resources to help you with your search. #deaf #disability #awereness #hacks

Reality hit hard when I was 9. My mother was laid off as a counselor for the New York Foundling Hospital due to funding cuts for their deaf-adult-services program. For the first time, I paid attention to the employment challenges my mother faced.

Emily Frenkel with her mother, father, and brother
My mom, dad, brother, and me about a year before my mom got laid off.

The Stats on Deaf Employment

My parents moved to the United States from Ukraine in 1990 and had to learn American Sign Language. Though my mother had hoped for a more mentally stimulating career, she felt that her chances of finding one were slim to none. So she applied for manual-labor jobs, as many of her deaf friends found the odds of getting hired were better in those fields.

People with disabilities are more likely to be in service and agricultural occupations than those without, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, people without a disability are more likely to be in management or professional occupations.

A mere 39 percent of those between the ages of 21 and 64 with a hearing disability are employed full-time. People without a hearing disability are twice as likely to be employed full time, according to Cornell's 2017 Disability Status Report.

“Companies aren’t sure what to expect when hiring deaf employees,” explains John Macko, director of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) Center of Employment.

The employment gap seems to have widened. However, statistics don’t begin to scratch the surface of where the inequity starts or ends.

How do I know? I saw it firsthand.

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The Challenges My Mother Faced

When my mother started to apply for jobs, employers interested in her application would call Mom’s Sorenson Video Relay Service (SVRS) number, the functional equivalent of a telephone for the hearing impaired. They were perplexed when they reached someone introduced as an interpreter, rather than my mother herself.

How Does an SVRS Work?

An employer is connected to an interpreter to dial into an SVRS direct line — in this case, my mother’s — and the interpreter signs or translates the messages of the caller. The interpreter would then translate my mom’s signed message to the voice equivalent for the employer.

SVRS is paid for by the same Telecommunications Relay Services Fund established by the Federal Communications Commission under the ADA. To qualify, you fill out an application online or via representatives of SVRS who are often found at deaf community events.

I’ve never heard of someone within the deaf community having trouble receiving a videophone and software from Sorenson Communications. Video relay services are a huge upgrade from the TTYs (a kind of teletypewriter) that were prevalent in the deaf community in the ’90s.

Unfortunately, SVRS interpreters are randomly selected. As a result, there is no guarantee they will have any knowledge about the fields in which you’re interviewing. This means that a deaf job candidate could answer an interview question perfectly, but an interpreter could unintentionally relay the information incorrectly.

The undeniable disinterest I watched employers express once they understood that my mother was deaf was truly heartbreaking. Some called requesting an in-person interview off the bat. Once my mother requested an interpreter, they quickly began to find excuses to back out, in clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“We don’t know how to get you an interpreter,” “I’m not sure if this is a good fit,” “It may take too long to look for an interpreter, sorry.” The excuses were endless.

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Deaf and Looking for Jobs? Know Your Rights

“Reasonable accommodation comes down to your job function,” says Chris Sweet, a technical assistant at Cornell University. My mom was not aware of this during her job search. As such, she assumed she was entitled to an interpreter only for an interview.

In 2017, there were 10,773 cases filed with the ADA, the United States Courts reported. From 2005 to 2017, filings of ADA cases raising employment discrimination increased by a staggering 196 percent.

On certain days, I was pulled out of my elementary school to become my mother’s part-time interpreter.

I would sit across from my mom and translate between her and her prospective employer. The irony? I was not a qualified interpreter because I was a family member, according to the ADA National Network.

Helping My Mother

From group to one-on-one interviews, I was expected to convey the sophistication and charisma that my mother embodied with my underdeveloped communication skills. Employers were amused as I, a little girl, walked into the room in business attire with my mom, ready for an interview. Needless to say, I grew up quickly.

My mother spent four years unemployed and was still the sole financial provider for my brother and me, since she and our father had separated around the time my mother lost her job. Her frugal way of life and radiant positivity helped us stay afloat. Today, I look back and realize that it was due to her strength that I didn’t notice we were sinking.

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Deaf and Looking for Jobs? Here’s What You Need to Know - Emily Frenkel at her brother's graduation
My brother’s college graduation. He was the first person in our family to graduate from a four-year university.

Resources for Deaf People Looking for Jobs

Thankfully, we discovered Adult Career and Continuing Education Services-Vocational Rehabilitation (ACCES-VR) — New York State’s Vocational Rehabilitation Center — through the grapevine.

The New York State Education Department offers ACCES-VR to individuals with disabilities. Through services like this, the organization strives to build a healthy, working relationship between partnering businesses and people with disabilities.

Businesses recruit at no cost with ACCES-VR, saving them time and money. ACCES-VR reviews its current talent pool to match business’ needs. You can contact your nearest Business Relations Team member to list your job with ACCES-VR. Additional incentives for businesses include potential tax credits, pre-screened job-ready applicants, ongoing follow-up services, job coaching for employees found through ACCES-VR, and support for current employees who acquire a disability.

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The program helped my mother achieve and maintain employment. My mother filled out an online application to open her case, and attended an ACCES-VR group orientation.

She learned that cases could be open for up to a year, meaning my mother would receive employment assistance for that period of time if needed.

The approval process varies depending on financial need, ACCES-VR staffing and funding, jobs available, etc. For my mother, the process lasted about three months. Once somebody is approved to enter the program, an individualized Plan for Employment (IPE) is developed in conjunction with the person’s career goals, professional training, labor market trends, and the capacity to complete job responsibilities. For my mother, becoming a home health aide was a no-brainer. She’s always loved caring for people and helping them navigate a healthy lifestyle.

Once the IPE was created, ACCES-VR served as an advocate for my mother to interview for jobs. It took months for the service to set up an interview, but any help was appreciated. ACCES-VR provided interpreters for interviews when my mother asked, though interpreters were often not available last minute. When my mother set up her own interviews outside of the service, I stepped in occasionally to fill an interpreter’s shoes.

Within a few months, my mother landed a job as a part-time home attendant. To be honest, it’s not the stable career she envisioned. In her current position, she is dependent on her client’s health, so when her client is hospitalized, my mother doesn’t work, despite her willingness to do so. As a result, our household income is unpredictable.

As I settle into my own career, I plan to repay my mother for all that she’s given to my brother and me. 

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Deaf and Looking for Jobs? Here’s What You Need to Know: Author Emily Frenkel and her mother | Emily Frenkel and her mother - recent picture
My mother and I

How to Protect Yourself If You’re Deaf and Looking for Work

To keep yourself protected while seeking an accommodation, document as much information as you can in writing. Keep a detailed record of the potential employers you spoke with, what occurred, and when. This way, you’ll have the information written down in the event you need to file a complaint with the ADA.

You can do so by completing an online form. Once your complaint is received, it will be reviewed by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and somebody from the DOJ will contact you with next steps. Be warned, though, that reviews can take up to three months.

If you do not receive a response by then, you may call the ADA Information Line to check on the status of your complaint. When ADA specialists have all the necessary information, your complaint may be referred to the ADA Mediation Program, the United States’ Attorney’s Office in your area, or another federal agency, or be considered for possible litigation by the Department of Justice.

If you are deaf and struggling to find and maintain work, Macko advises not to focus on the obstacle.

“Focus on the skill sets you can offer to the company you’d like to work for. Establish a clear job search plan — know where you want to work. Pick three top cities of your preference. Focus on those, that’s how you will develop your job-seeking skills.”

Macko’s advice underscores the need for career advice and positive reinforcement for the hearing disabled when employment stats paint a grim picture. Other tips to consider as a job seeker:

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Information for Employers

The obligation to provide reasonable accommodation is based on the establishment, according to the National Association for the Deaf (NAD). Factors to consider are the size of the organization, its financial status, religious affiliation, and how the organization gets funded. While it might come down to a lack of awareness or outright discrimination at large companies, some well-meaning smaller businesses may not have the resources to pay for additional services.

You can find interpreter services via public agencies such as your state’s Vocational Rehabilitation department, the state commission for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, or the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. The cost of an interpreter can range from $12 to $50 per hour, based on an interpreter’s location, education, credentials, and experience.

To learn more about the process of providing reasonable accommodations, check out the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

“In the hiring process, there needs to be effective communication between an employer and an employee,” Sweet says.

“An employer should have a detailed conversation about what an employee’s needs are and how that could fit into the employer’s needs as well. Employers might consider avenues to empower the employee and get the best talent,” he continues. “If it’s an undue financial burden, they’re not off the hook.”

Employers can consider restructuring the job and redistributing minor tasks (that might not be accomplished by a hearing-impaired person) to other parts of the staff and vice versa. Too often, when you run into legal cases, employers get an accommodation request, but didn’t have a conversation with the employee.

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Resources for Employers

Some employers shut down and say, “We can’t do anything for you, we don’t have the money,” Sweet adds. Here are resources for businesses who want to learn more about how they can improve their hiring practices:

Progress in Hearing-Disabled Employment

While employment stats are grim for the hard-of-hearing, there are schools and organizations making a difference. One such organization is RIT’s NTID Center of Employment, which helps students to become job-ready.

Looking for jobs is challenging for anybody, but especially if you're deaf. Check out these tips and resources to help you with your search. #deaf #disability #awereness #hacksNTID enrolls about 1,000 deaf students across the U.S. These students are required to have a co-op experience (a structured job that provides academic credit). After their second or third co-op experience, students have a better understanding of how to advocate for themselves and their accommodations, Macko clarifies.

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RIT hosts wonderful career fair every year. Approximately 50 companies attend, eager to learn more about the deaf student body population and recruit top candidates. Fortune 500s, non-profit organizations, and federal agencies participate. RIT sends out invitations, then companies can fill out an application. To learn more, check out RIT’s career fair information page.

By attending, “companies feel more comfortable hiring members of the deaf community, Macko says. They familiarize themselves with members of the deaf community who speak, sign, and speak and sign. Sign language interpreters are utilized for the recruiter and the student.”

NTID performs on-site visitations with the hiring manager to ask if he or she is satisfied with the student’s work. They also check in with their students on the progress they’ve made, or any challenges they faced.

“RIT is appreciative of the federal funding and the faith the government has shown for 50-plus years now. Funding is used to reduce tuition for deaf and hard-of-hearing students to help level the playing field for those who have traditionally been underserved in both employment and education,” says Susan Murad, director of public relations and technology transfer at Rochester Institute of Technology’s NTID. “The connection between employers and students demonstrates the return on investment.”

“Every year, RIT works with the Department of Education to compile an annual report for the Secretary of Education,” Macko adds.