Communication is key for deaf and hard-of-hearing technical pros

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The National Center for Health Statistics (www.cdc.gov/nchs/) reports that 22 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing. It's not surprising that many talented engineers and IT specialists are among them.

Changes in technology, especially the increasing use of e-mail and instant messaging (IM), have improved communication for many deaf and hard-of-hearing people both at home and in the workplace. A recent online survey by the National Association for the Deaf (NAD, www.nad.org) indicates that those with access to the Internet are making good use of the technology.

E-mail is used by 97 percent of respondents at home and 74 percent at work. Almost everybody says they use it more than they did three years ago.



Some 75 percent report using IM regularly at home. Use at work drops to 35 percent, with many respondents indicating that employers block IM as a matter of office policy.

That's too bad, because deaf respondents say they particularly appreciate IM. It's not only 100 percent visual, but also interactive, the NAD explains, allowing users "to enjoy meaningful, accessible and fast communication." It is often used in preference to a text pager or a telephone device for the deaf (TTY/TDD), a somewhat intimidating arrangement with a small teletype-like readout that connects to a regular phone line.

In fact, the deaf respondents were so positively in favor of IM that NAD is thinking about asking employers to reconsider their workplace policies if necessary to accommodate deaf employees.

Of course the survey was conducted online. Nobody knows how many deaf and hard of hearing people are locked out of the new technologies by lack of access. It may be an insidious new form of the digital divide.

In any event, technology is certainly important to the diverse community of deaf and hard-of-hearing people we talked to for this article. Technology is not only the tool they use to communicate with their colleagues and business associates. It's also, of course, their profession.

At Kodak, Lynn Hudson supports electronic circuit design

Lynn R. Hudson is a development engineer in the design automation group of Eastman Kodak's R&D engineering technology center (Rochester, NY). "My department is the electrical engineering center," he explains. "It supports the business units in all types of circuit design, from printed circuit boards to field programmable gate arrays and custom ICs."

His group provides the tools used to design the electronic circuits, and his team is responsible for the schematic symbols, layout geometries and simulation models for PCBs. He is the simulation model coordinator.

Hudson received a BSEE from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT, Rochester, NY). He graduated in 1977 with highest honors.

As a student he co-opped with five different Kodak departments. After graduation he was hired by the consumer products EE department. He's worked for Kodak for twenty-seven years, in areas ranging from circuit design to wiring harness layout.

Technology was a natural choice for Hudson. His hearing impairment made him shy, and his inquisitive nature fostered an early interest in the "magic" of electronics. Although he has a severe hearing loss, he was mainstreamed throughout his schooling. He wears hearing aids and lipreads, but does not use American Sign Language (ASL) or interpreters.

"I try to educate my co-workers on how they can help me understand them," Hudson says. "Keep your hands away from your mouth, face me when you talk, and e-mail me or stop by my office rather than call or leave voice mail."

For those who must call, his digital phone has a built-in amplifier and Caller ID. He tells his colleagues to speak loudly, slowly, and directly into the phone. "I just am not accustomed to listening to a variety of accents and speech patterns," he admits.

For large meetings, Kodak's 2,000-seat auditorium is equipped with an infrared hearing system, and Hudson wears an audio loop to couple the signal to his hearing aids. His building has ADA-mandated strobe lights in addition to audible fire alarms, and for extra safety a co-worker is assigned to make sure he gets out when the fire alarm sounds.

Hudson is highly pleased with both Kodak and Rochester, a city known for its large and active deaf community. RIT, Hudson's school, is the home of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). NTID has its own academic programs, though many of its students take RIT classes as well. A note-taking system and ASL interpreters are available when a professor does not sign.

Hudson notes that ASL users are a common sight in the Rochester area. And although he considers himself part of the hearing community, "I have reaped the benefits of having quality audiology services for me and my family, assistive listening devices in churches and movie theaters, and interacting with people who have an understanding of deafness."

In 1982, Hudson received a patent as a co-inventor of a circuit for passively controlling the electronic flash used in Kodak's Disc cameras. He's authored and presented technical papers at several conferences. He's happy with both his role and his employer. "I would like to continue as a contributing engineer with Kodak until I retire," he says.

Deborah Dolgin manages the Web at IBM

At IBM (Armonk, NY), Deborah Dolgin is the availability manager for global Web apps in IT. She coordinates the team that manages and supports both the internal and external websites at the company.

"We keep the site up and running and deal with top-level problems," she says. "You have to be proactive in this type of work, and that's one of my strengths. This is a high visibility area, and we achieve 99.5 percent availability," she notes with pride.

When Dolgin graduated from Centenary College (Hackettstown, NJ) in 1976 with an associates degree in art, a friend suggested that she apply to IBM. She joined as a data entry operator and worked at that for several years.

"It was the beginning of the PC environment and I developed technical interests," she recalls. Her supervisors encouraged her to get into technology, so she took appropriate courses. She was soon given a job as a computer operator in the TPF center, writing code for airline reservation systems. "As I developed more skills, I moved into other areas," she says.

Dolgin wears two hearing aids and hears quite well with their help, but finds that unusual speech patterns and phone conversations can be a challenge. She feels her assertive nature has helped her cope. "A lot of my co-workers have strong Indian accents. I work very hard to train my ear, but I also let them know about my hearing right up front." IBM's online chat system helps her find out anything she may have missed in a phone conversation.

Like Hudson, Dolgin relies on verbal communication. Her congenital hearing loss was detected early in childhood and she was given helpful therapy and education. She does not know ASL, but does lipread well. Her telephone is equipped with an amplifier. And she's never shy about asking people to repeat things she may have missed. "I've always managed to educate the people around me, so there's never been a problem."

Her optimism and energy have taken her far. Recently she was project manager on a large job. "It was a very big project, supporting the computer system for a major outside client. We had a large team, twenty-five in all, including both IBM and client support people. We ended up saving them a lot of money."

Scott Van Nice supports infrastructure at P&G

Scott Van Nice graduated from RIT in 2001 with a BSIT. He works as a systems analyst for Procter & Gamble (P&G, Cincinnati, OH), a major marketer of consumer household products.

Van Nice provides infrastructure support for a department of lab scientists and programmers, and acts as infrastructure manager for upcoming projects. His expertise is in Microsoft operating systems.

During his five years at RIT Van Nice did several co-ops, including one working in distributed support services at the school itself - "a wonderful opportunity," he says.

Another co-op was at X/Net (Rochester, NY), a small database company. "It taught me about the importance of teamwork in small groups," Van Nice reports. His final co-op was with P&G, working with NT services. One project that he remembers with pleasure involved coming up with a faster and more efficient way to deploy an operating system.

Although technology came easily to him, he started at RIT in the biology department. A professor there "saw that I wasn't happy and encouraged me to switch to IT." He also feels he owes a great deal to the placement staff at NTID for recommending the co-op at P&G.

Van Nice is profoundly deaf and rarely communicates verbally. But he perceives communicating with the hearing world as an opportunity rather than a challenge. "P&G has been incredibly generous in not only providing me with technical and management opportunities, but also the use of interpreters and a TTY device," he says.

He often uses ASL interpreters for communication. At other times he resorts to his laptop to type out his thoughts. "I'm also investigating the possibilities of speech recognition software programs for situations where an interpreter isn't available," he confides.

There's no deaf employee network at P&G, but Van Nice hopes to see more deaf folks hired in the near future. "I believe I'm the first deaf person to work on the corporate level, so this is an exciting time for me to play a role in bringing more deaf employees aboard. Right now we have a deaf intern from the University of Florida who is doing quite well."

Just a year into his career at P&G, Van Nice is still learning to work on projects as part of a team. "I grew up with a strong preference for solitary activities. This has been one of my greatest challenges, but I hope it will soon become one of my greatest accomplishments," he says with enthusiasm.

Bill Lewis develops software at Microsoft

Bill Lewis graduated from RIT in 1993 with a BS in computer science and went to work at Lawyers Cooperative Publishing (Rochester, NY). He was a programmer helping to develop viewing software for legal documents on CD-ROMs. Two years later he moved on to Microsoft (Redmond, WA), the computer software company, and has been there ever since as a software developer.

Lewis designs and implements user features and fixes bugs - in fact, bugs that result from implementing new features are his major problem, he says with a smile. He likes learning new languages and staying on top of cutting-edge technology. "Plus, I get to learn from really sharp people about coding skills and the do's and don'ts of programming."

"I can't hear a thing," says Lewis, but still he manages to communicate verbally. He also uses IM, e-mail, a whiteboard and marker, and sometimes even pen and paper. His ASL is a bit weak, he says, and e-mail is his number one tool for communicating. Microsoft provides ASL interpreters if needed, text telephones and strobe lights for fire alarms.

It was Lewis who had the idea of throwing a monthly "silent lunch" for deaf people and their supporters. ASL is the language of choice there. "We practice ASL or just chat," Lewis says.

Lewis thinks Microsoft is "the best company on the planet to work and learn cutting-edge technology." He hopes to move up the management ladder, or maybe start his own business sometime in the future.

Mandy Oei: consumer documentation at Microsoft

As a kid, Mandy Oei developed a keen interest in technology, encouraged by her mother, a software engineer, and her father, a computer enthusiast. Today Oei works at Microsoft as a technical writer, creating documentation to help consumers make the best use of Microsoft software. Her current assignment is help documentation for Platform Builder, a development environment for building embedded platforms based on Microsoft's Windows CE.NET operating system.

Oei attended deaf-oriented Gallaudet University (Washington, DC) for a semester as a visiting student. She graduated from Stanford University (Stanford, CA) in 2001 with a BA in English and creative writing.

Most technical writers have a technical education, but OEI feels that her English background helps her create documentation that's more understandable to non-techies. Of course she studied the technical side, too. "I took computer programming classes throughout college, and spent a lot of time talking to computer professionals outside the classroom," she says.

"I also had a hobby of working with the Linux OS, which helped me understand how computers work and how to think about and approach them."

Oei spent one college summer doing tech support for a medical clinic. She installed new software and brought a medical database up to spec. The summer she graduated, she interned at Microsoft as a tech writer. Her mentor there helped her learn how to write various types of documentation. "I also learned how to perform effectively as a member of a team, which was vastly different from being a student."

Oei is profoundly deaf, but a hearing aid helps her use her residual hearing, and her primary mode of communication is verbal. "I read lips and speak fairly well," she says. "I've learned how to put people at ease. And of course many discussions are conducted through e-mail or IM."

When Oei was hired, the diversity department at Microsoft brought in an outside consultant to help educate her colleagues and increase the comfort level for everyone. "The consultant gave my co-workers pointers on facilitating communication with me. Several of my immediate co-workers have taken the initiative to learn sign language," Oei adds.

Oei enjoys the silent lunches held on the Microsoft campus. In fact, she enjoys the whole corporate environment. "Microsoft puts a premium on diversity," she says.

Ben Harucki does CAD at Northrop Grumman

Ben Harucki is a senior piping designer at Northrop Grumman, Newport News Sector (Newport News, VA). He works on the next-generation nuclear aircraft carrier, using Catia CAD tools to plan pipe routing around the vessel.

Harucki has been with Northrop Grumman for three years. He trained at the Manhattan Institute of Drafting (New York, NY), receiving an electro-mechanical engineering certificate in 1962. Since then he's gained extensive hands-on experience working for a number of firms as a draftsman and designer.

He has been deaf since birth, is very fluent in ASL, and can also lipread in one-on-one situations. His goal, he says, is to exceed expectations and compete on the same level as his hearing peers. "My motto is to show them I am able to do anything."

Northrop Grumman has given him an ICommunicator voice recognition computer, which enhances his communication with hearing co-workers. "The computer stores speech patterns of people I frequently communicate with. The only challenge is that it takes about an hour to record a speech pattern to create the initial file," he explains. For others, he lipreads and uses pen and paper if there's a misunderstanding. "We also e-mail messages to discuss projects, and I've taught some of my colleagues ASL."

Northrop Grumman gave Harucki a TTY device, but he's discovered that not everyone is ready to use it. "Most hearing people who have not used a TTY shy away from it because they don't feel comfortable with it," he says.

Nevertheless, Harucki is hoping for improved text pager coverage worldwide, and the ability to use a cell phone with a TTY. And he's looking forward to the time, hopefully within a few years, when the ICommunicator system will be upgraded to recognize speech without the need for personal pattern files.

"It's my dream to be able to have a PDA with built-in voice recognition that I can carry in my shirt pocket to communicate with anyone I meet."

Northrop Grumman stands out as an employer, says Harucki. "They meet my need for accessibility and allow me to work at a competitive level. I look forward to seeing more deaf professionals with ship-engineering backgrounds apply to work with us."

Off the job, Harucki is president of the Hampton Roads chapter of the Virginia Association for the Deaf. He's also a deacon with the West Hampton Baptist Church, where the pastor is fluent in ASL and signs during services.

Scott DeLoach develops software at Lucent

Scott DeLoach is a software engineer at the Naperville, IL facility of Lucent Technologies (Murray Hill, NJ). He develops applications that help field engineers preconfigure company products based on customer needs before sending in the order. The job involves writing, testing and refining code.

In high school DeLoach toyed with the idea of working as a computer graphic artist. He started out well, even selling his work to a local newspaper. But over time software engineering won out. He received a BSIS from RIT in 1989 and joined the part of AT&T which later became Lucent. In 1994 he received an MSCS from the Illinois Institute of Technology (Chicago, IL).

Right now his strongest skills are in code development and testing. He uses C, Java, and Visual Basic, and is also proficient in a variety of Web development tools. But, "What I know today will most likely not be what I will use five years from today," he says, so he's constantly honing his skills.

DeLoach has been profoundly deaf since birth. He wears a hearing aid, but it's only really useful for macro sounds - fire sirens, for example, or someone calling out his name. He can speak and lipread, but, "I lose a lot of information, which leads to misunderstandings. I prefer written means to be sure I'm getting the full message." He mostly relies on e-mail, IM, a TTY and a whiteboard, and "I work closely with my supervisor to get assignments that let me be most productive. That usually means they require minimal face-to-face communication."

Lucent also provides a full-time staff interpreter. "There are thirteen deaf employees at my location. More than ten years ago, we formed a local employee organization called Deafnet to advocate our needs, and we persuaded management to bring in the interpreter. I believe we were the first company to do that, and we are very proud of that accomplishment."

Deafnet is also used to educate hearing co-workers. And in addition, DeLoach is president of Individuals with Disabilities Enabling Advocacy Link (IDEAL), one of the company's national employee business partner organizations. IDEAL advocates for all Lucent employees with disabilities.

DeLoach finds that Lucent's strong diversity awareness programs have reduced common workplace problems and misconceptions about the deaf and hard of hearing. "But I still need to encourage co-workers to include me in their conversations and meetings."

"Over time, the communication barrier does break down as the comfort level increases. But in our fast-paced work environment, it takes longer for this to happen."

Still, DeLoach really likes his job at Lucent. "I have deaf friends who work in much less accommodating environments," he says.

Loretta Powell manages IT projects at Agilent

Loretta Powell is an IT project management expert at Agilent Technologies (Palo Alto, CA), which provides test, measurement and monitoring devices, semiconductor products, and tools for communications and life sciences.

In the IT department, Powell supports legacy systems used for contracts, product and pricing as the company moves to a new enterprise system. Currently she's the data migration lead on two projects, supports several applications on Unix servers, and is also called in for production problem fixes.

Powell holds a 1985 certificate of completion from the Computer Technology Program (CTP, Berkeley, CA) and is certified in Oracle application programming. But, "Most of what I know was taught to me by programmers and engineers, internal classes at work and what I've read." She's adept at computer languages, and good at "translating computer-speak into English that users can understand."

Her first job was with Hewlett-Packard (Palo Alto, CA) as a programmer in payroll and benefit systems. In seven years there, she supported the central payroll system and the remote data entry system and was the office automation support person. Then she spent four years with the sales and marketing organization, helping to design and install a new product and pricing system. Next she went into systems programming as support and then systems engineer. Recently she moved back into applications support in the IT organization.

When HP spun off Agilent a few years ago, Powell was part of the effort to clone HP systems for the new company. "I started with one credit system and moved up to more responsibilities and more complex applications."

Although Powell has a bilateral hearing loss, it wasn't identified until she was in second grade, and she was always mainstreamed in school. As a result she never learned much ASL, but she did learn to speak up when she didn't understand. Today she communicates with whatever is at hand - drawings, notes, speaking and some signing. Agilent provides a TTY and amplifier for her phone.

Powell is a member of the Agilent Abilities Network Group. She enjoys the opportunity to network with people with various disabilities and their supporters.

Brian Doane: satellite technology at Walgreens

The Walgreens pharmacy chain (Deerfield, IL) is the largest private user of satellite technology in the country, says Brian D. Doane. Walgreens opens hundreds of new stores each year. Its computerized prescription system links all its stores into a single network.

Doane has been with Walgreens since the beginning of 2002. He works on production print jobs in the IT ops department, updates the database for error tracking and reporting, and monitors the enterprise systems to ensure timely completion of batch jobs.

Doane graduated from RIT in 1995 with a BSIT. In school, he co-opped at Independent Title Services (Pittsford, NY) as a programmer and systems analyst, and spent several summers at Citicorp (Chicago, IL), as an assistant to the IS manager.

After graduation, Doane volunteered as a computer technician with Access Living (Chicago, IL), a nonprofit that deals with disability issues. He upgraded the group's network system, rewired it and reconfigured hard drives on its PC equipment.

The next year Doane moved to J. D. Edwards (Downers Grove, IL), an enterprise software company, as an IT support technician. He administered a regional LAN and led tech support for the regional training center.

Doane was downsized last year as the economy slowed. He spent some time working on his Microsoft Certified System Engineer certification, and did contract IT consulting for Hunter Contractor Manufacturing (Rolling Meadows, IL), where he maintained and updated the network system. He got his job at Walgreens through the Anixter Job Center (Chicago, IL, www.anixter.org/JobWorks/index.htm), which specializes in clients who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Doane lost most of his hearing from a high fever he had when he was young. His verbal skills are so good that many of his co-workers forget that he's deaf and relies on lip reading. "I usually communicate verbally, but if that fails, then I'll try body language, facial expressions, writing, typing," he says.

He also uses a TTY and sometimes turns to voice carryover (VCO) technology. With VCO, Doane can speak directly into the phone, and an operator types out what the other party says for him to read on his TTY.

"At every company I've worked for it takes some time for everyone to get comfortable with VCO," Doane notes. "It's a matter of perseverance to prove to the hearing that my deafness will not interfere with my work."

"But in this age of advancing communication technology the barriers are diminishing quickly," says Doane.
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