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Unemployment in the Deaf Community: Barriers, Recommendations and Benefits of Hiring Deaf Employees

Updated: Jul 23, 2019

The employment gap between deaf and hearing individuals in the United States is wide and statistically significant. According to Deaf People and Employment in the United States: 2019, written by Carrie Lou Garberoglio, Jeffrey Levi Palmer, Stephanie Cawthon, and Adam Sales at the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes, in 2017 approximately 53% of deaf people were in the workforce, as compared to 75.8% of hearing people. In addition, approximately 47% of deaf people were not part of the workforce, compared to only 24% of hearing people. Over 28 million people with hearing loss live in the United States and nearly one million people who are deaf use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. The use of the term “deaf” encompasses a wide range of individuals with varying degrees of hearing loss and communication preferences. Studies show that deaf people face extraordinary challenges in finding and retaining jobs. Despite the mandates of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 in strengthening the hiring practices and provision of reasonable accommodations for all individuals with disabilities, several studies found that even with training, laws, and gradual increase in awareness to the needs of employees who are deaf, the employment rate of this population continues to be lower than hearing employees. Reasons for higher unemployment rates in the Deaf Community vary, but can often be attributed to employers’ hiring practices, misconceptions and attitudes.

Employment Barriers

Discriminatory Hiring Practices: Although the percentage of individuals who are deaf earning degrees from colleges and universities has increased nearly fourfold since the early 1970s, the percentage of deaf individuals joining in the workforce has been on a continual decline, according to Gerard Walter and Richard Dirmyer’s study in 2012 titled, “The Effect of Education on the Occupational Status of Deaf and Hard of Hearing 26-64 Years Old”. In the same study, more than 80% of deaf people were part of the workforce in early 1970s (vs. 48% in 2014). The steady decline in employment rates in the Deaf Community is largely due to discriminatory hiring practices by many companies, whether or not they are doing so intentionally. There are often layers of discriminatory hiring practices that make these statistics still hold true today. Such practices can range from the discriminatory language on the job ad itself, to the application & hiring process, and can even impact the promotion of deaf employees. Oftentimes, deaf job candidates hesitate disclosing their hearing loss and their accommodation needs to potential employers, because they are afraid companies will view them as a burden and not invite them for an interview. Asking for an ASL interpreter for a job interview is considered an appropriate accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but many deaf job candidates have faced situations where after requesting accommodations, their interviews were suddenly cancelled and they were told the job had been filled. Additionally, if résumés and cover letters allude to companies that the job candidates are deaf, they are quickly screened out and are never given the opportunity to interview for the job.

Employer Misconceptions and Attitudes: The second biggest contribution to the high unemployment rate in the Deaf Community is employers’ misconceptions of and attitudes toward deaf people. Many companies are wary of hiring deaf job candidates. Deaf candidates are often perceived as too “disabled” to work at their companies, or that they will cause an undue burden on the business due to a need for accommodations. Some may view deaf candidates as unproductive, weak or unintelligent, all misconceptions that are unfounded. Others assert a person needs to be able to speak or hear to fulfill job responsibilities, when the actual qualification should be around ability to clearly communicate. Through the use of an interpreter or other accommodation, deaf people are able to communicate as clearly and effectively as their hearing counterparts. Even if a deaf person becomes employed within a company, many deaf employees experience hostility or discrimination at work, so they eventually quit. Some deaf employees are terminated without cause or due process, and some are the first ones to be laid off when looking at budget cuts. Many deaf people choose to remain unemployed after experiencing this cycle many times over the course of their career.

Barriers to Job Advancement: Large numbers of deaf individuals have opted out of the workforce after being employed for several years. Like anyone else, deaf employees seek job advancement within the company, but they are often put in a position of disadvantage when they do not have access to important information exchanged within the company. Missing out on this ongoing incidental information prevents them from building rapport and forming key relationships with co-workers and supervisors which are essential for job promotions. In addition, higher expectations are often placed on deaf employees to process knowledge and communicate as quickly as hearing employees without an accommodation. When expectations are not met, employers may see their deaf employees as incompetent. Even with deaf employees that receive stellar job evaluations, they are often overlooked by the management for promotions due to the fear that advancing deaf employees will be too difficult for hearing subordinates, or that the company will incur additional accommodation-related expenses. In doing this, the company fails to recognize the true potential of a deaf employee. Many deaf employees become frustrated with the glass ceiling and have no hope for job advancement, leaving them with no other choice but to leave the company and eventually become dependent on federal subsidies, if not hired at a different company.

Recommendations That Work

Diversity Training: Not only should employers embrace diversity in the workplace, they should also recognize that deaf people can enhance their diverse workforce. Diversity training for business executives and direct staff can help emphasize the value that deaf employees bring to their companies. Such training helps to eliminate misconceptions and stereotypes of deaf people, providing a better understanding of what it is like to be deaf, what accommodations deaf employees may require, how best to collaborate with them, and how to better advocate for them in employment settings.

Hiring Practices: Each company needs to revisit their hiring practices to make sure that their job ads, descriptions and qualification criteria do not prevent the hiring and promotion of qualified deaf individuals. This can be achieved by thoroughly reviewing job postings to identify discriminatory language (e.g., “must be able to talk on the telephone” or “must have excellent ‘verbal’ skills”) that prevents deaf job seekers from applying or being screened out in the initial hiring process, and for the job promotions after they are employed at the company. An example of improving the job posting language may include “…must be able to effectively work with employees and customers through different communication tools”. This change focus on effectiveness of communication and leave room for deaf candidates who can fulfill these job duties through the use of appropriate accommodations.

Technical Assistance: National assistance centers like Job Accommodation Network and the ADA National Network are funded to provide information and technical assistance to employers about accommodations for people with disabilities, including deaf employees. Companies should take advantage of these materials provided by the assistance centers to employ and maximize the skills of deaf employees. Most situations do not require a major effort to comply with the ADA or other related laws. Accommodation costs for deaf employees are usually minimal. Providing captioned phones or videophones are two excellent examples.

Communication and Inclusiveness: Companies need to strive to be fully inclusive of deaf employees in their employment settings. By strengthening communication with deaf employees by providing equal access to meetings and task instructions will help them do their jobs efficiently. Securing American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters or Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART) services for company meetings as well providing available digital business communication tools for day-to-day work are an excellent start. This will allow hearing employees to communicate directly with deaf employees and vice versa.

Community Engagement and Partnerships: Companies are encouraged to partner with organizations involved in creating job opportunities for deaf people. The companies could work with universities that have a large number of deaf students (e.g., Gallaudet University and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology) to create pipelines from school to work. Not only that, companies also can work with the Vocational Rehabilitation agency in their home states to bring deaf trainees to their companies. Companies can also post their employment opportunities directly to deaf job seekers and by doing this, companies are directly engaging the Deaf Community to apply for jobs.

Why Hire Deaf People?

Tax Breaks for Companies: Employers who hire deaf individuals can take advantage of several federal tax credits or deductions such as the Disabled Access Credit, Barrier Removal Tax Deduction, and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. The United States Internal Revenue Service has information about these benefits.

Strengthening the Economy: The improved employment rates and increased earnings for deaf employees will enable them to become productive and contributing citizens which will translate into increased contributions to the overall economy in terms of additional taxes for the government and boost revenues for companies when deaf people make purchases of their goods or services. Most importantly, a higher employment rate in the Deaf Community reduces their dependence on entitlement programs such as Social Security or other government transfer payments to maintain a minimum standard of living.

Diverse Workforce and Social Responsibility: By hiring deaf people and ensuring that they have the tools to succeed, the entire company can benefit from having a more diverse workforce. Deaf employees are loyal and often bring fresh perspectives and ideas to the company, which benefits everyone. By employing social responsibility, companies can balance profit-making activities with activities that will hedge against the high unemployment rate in the Deaf Community, and the dependency on federal subsidies. Deaf employees, once they feel supported and valued, make fantastic contributions to the overall success of a company.


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