Hearing Health Foundation

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Workplace Tales

I had the honor of introducing President Barack Obama at a White House reception in July 2015, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The president shared a moving story of how, in the years before Congress passed the ADA, his father-in-law—who had multiple sclerosis—would sometimes hold himself back because he didn’t want his disability to inconvenience others. With that story, President Obama reminded Americans, “We’ve got to tear down barriers externally, but we also have to tear down barriers internally.”

As someone who has struggled against attitudinal barriers, I loved hearing our president encourage the world to view access for people with disabilities as a civil and human right.

As a deafblind student, I witnessed advocates using the ADA to change social attitudes. The National Federation of the Blind regularly referenced the ADA when explaining to technology developers why designing access for people with disabilities is a necessity and not some optional cherry atop a Silicon Valley sundae. I heard how the National Association of the Deaf used the ADA to increase closed captioning online, and how the organization Disability Rights Advocates used the ADA to compel Target’s tech team to make their website accessible to blind Americans.

Impressed by the success of these advocates, I felt inspired to join them. Back then, and even now, I encountered so many barriers in the digital world—not because of my disability, but because of attitudes among tech developers that trivialize access for people with disabilities.

When I entered Harvard Law School, I faced a serious question: How would a deafblind student succeed? I remember the first time I presented my communication system to a lawyer. I felt many of the insecurities probably experienced by President Obama’s father-in-law. Would the lawyer think I was somehow inconveniencing her or slowing her down?

Knowing the power of confidence, I hid my insecurities and put on a smile. “Would you mind typing on this keyboard since I can’t hear you? I’ll be able to read what you type on this Braille display.” To my surprise, she started typing.

I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I would survive law school.

Not only does the ADA make it possible for people with disabilities to obtain a world-class education, but it also empowers us to overcome our own insecurities in pursuit of our dreams. Two years after law school, through my work at Disability Rights Advocates, I helped achieve a legal victory in National Federation of the Blind v. Scribd Inc., the second decision to hold that the ADA applies to e-commerce.

More than two decades after the ADA, advocates still encounter attitudinal barriers among tech companies that continue to insist they don’t have to provide access for people with disabilities. Given the necessity of accessing online services in today’s world, all of us with disabilities will continue to turn to the ADA to tear down barriers.

President Obama has led our nation in the quest to remove external and internal barriers. When I met him at the White House, even though he had never communicated with a deafblind person through a digital Braille display and QWERTY keyboard, he gracefully switched from speaking to typing.

Through our conversation, I experienced the genuine warmth of our president, his attentiveness to people, his understanding of the value of technology in connecting people, and his sincere belief that people with disabilities, people like his father-in-law and myself, should never let attitudinal barriers stop us from pursuing our dreams.

Watch Obama and Girma at youtube.com/watch?v=SZCQT-DYVNY. This post originally appeared on the White House website and is republished with permission via Creative Commons.

I did it because I was mad. That’s why I started the Deaf and Hard of Hearing group on LinkedIn. I was mad because there appeared to be many people—educated, mature, professional people—struggling in the workforce simply because they did not have the information they needed to succeed.

A simple look around LinkedIn, the site for people looking to make professional connections, showed that while there were other groups dealing with hearing loss, none dealt specifically with workplace-related issues. There were groups on hearing loss in general (sample comment: “I’m going deaf. Do I need a hearing aid?”) and groups focused on the activities of a specific association or organization.

But there was nothing for the 40-something who had a job in a professional setting, where they had to attend and understand in meetings, on the telephone, and other typical office situations. People with hearing loss were scared for their jobs. They had no place to go to get information on accessibility, technology, or the laws that would give them the resources they need to succeed.

The group took off fairly quickly; within a few months we had our first 1,000 members. We’re approaching 10,000 now. If you search LinkedIn groups using the keyword “deaf” you’ll see that we are by far the largest group dealing with hearing loss.

Membership, as might be expected, is primarily professionals in the workplace who are deaf or have some level of hearing loss. We also have many members who work in the hearing loss field: audiologists, otolaryngologists, teachers, and therapists. Anyone who has an interest in helping people with hearing loss to succeed in the workplace is welcomed as a member!

While the majority of the members are American, including myself, I’m proud that we have strong representation from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and even Africa.

Discussions over the years have covered a wide range of topics, from assistive technology such as captioned telephones and FM systems to the intricacies of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some topics have provoked animated, if not heated, discussion, such as open captioning at movie theaters, Deaf culture, and the question of whether we are “hearing impaired” or “hard of hearing.”

But to me, the group is at its best when someone finds a solution to a difficult problem regarding their hearing loss. When a group member says they are using information they got from the group and are succeeding much better at their job that makes the group worthwhile. And we realize that the group is not helping just one person; it’s helping that person support a family. It’s helping to provide a future for the member’s children, helping to improve a family’s quality of life.

And, contrary to the anger that encouraged me to start the group, moments like this make me very happy.