Sunday, September 03, 2006

Deaf2Work: Taking a Peek into the Future

"I lost my hearing due to an illness when I was only one-year old. I asked my family–where did my ears go?" This was part of a fascinating personal story shared by "Joseph" through an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.
Joseph is a middle-aged man and immigrant from Romania who is also deaf. He was speaking with a small group of professionals visiting him at his new job at a Home Depot store in Minneapolis. Joseph was hired by Home Depot through a creative private-public business partnership called Deaf2Work. Joseph is one of 12 individuals with significant hearing loss recently hired in Minnesota through this employment initiative involving Home Depot, Minnesota’s Division of Rehabilitation Services (RS), and Minnesota Employment Center for People who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing (MEC).
The Deaf2Work program originated in Georgia and is the brain child of Barbara Chandler, a Vocational Program Coordinator working in the Atlanta area. Chandler approached Home Depot’s Headquarters in Atlanta with a creative proposal to screen and develop employment opportunities for Georgians who are deaf or hard of hearing (HOH). The national retailer’s management was intrigued by Chandler’s idea and gave her the green light to work with its retail stores identifying possibilities and coordinating the communication and job supports her employment candidates would need to achieve success. Chandler’s formula was highly successful and 67 individuals with hearing loss have been hired by Home Depot stores throughout Georgia. In fact, many Home Depot store managers in Georgia now contact Barbara Chandler directly with job opportunities.
The success of Deaf2Work in Georgia led to the national retailer’s interest in expanding the program to other states. Diane Acord, a Career Rehabilitation Counselor working for Minnesota RS, had read about the success of the program and wondered if such a venture might also work in the State of Minnesota. Acord contacted Layne Thome, Home Depot’s Director of Associate Services, at the retailer’s headquarters in Atlanta. After a number of telephone conversations, Acord sent a program proposal to Thome including a workplan to implement the Deaf2Work concept here in Minnesota. This workplan called for an interagency collaboration marshaling the expertise and fiscal resources of Home Depot, Minnesota RS, and MEC to open similar job opportunities for Minnesotans with hearing loss. Acord’s plan was accepted with enthusiasm and the Deaf2Work program began officially in Minnesota in October of 2005.
In a period of only six months, 12 employment positions were successfully developed for qualified Minnesotans who had passed Home Depot’s pre-screening test. The national retailer works with Chandler and Acord to coordinate employment screening and application accommodations for deaf/HOH employment candidates. A mandatory pre-employment test is given to interested applicants using ASL. The test questions have been translated into ASL on a specialized video produced by Home Depot Corporation. In addition, Minnesota’s applicants are assisted through their job application process by an Occupational Communication Specialist (OCS).
The concept of an OCS position was pioneered at MEC 13 years ago with technical support from Minnesota RS. An OCS is a trained employment consultant who is fluent in ASL, knowledgeable about deaf culture and hearing loss issues, skilled in the use of assistive technologies, competent in employer education techniques, and trained in job training methods and coordination of other supports for deaf/HOH employees in the workplace. In Minnesota, we are fortunate to have a small cadre of trained OCS professionals at both MEC and Minnesota RS. The OCS staff at MEC are also trained to provide customized and supported employment if such services are determined crucial to long-term job success.
To illustrate the process, Joseph was matched by Minnesota RS to a shipping & receiving position inside the warehouse at a Minneapolis store based on his interests and skills. After being supported with his pre-screening employment test by Acord, he was assigned to work with an OCS professional at MEC. The OCS staff provided communication support for Joseph during a mandatory 16-hour new employee orientation for all Home Depot employees. Also, the OCS worked with Joseph and his supervisor during his initial days on the job to insure he learned all tasks and routines expected of him. The OCS worked out communication modalities with his supervisors and co-workers and insured the workplace included safety accommodations for employees with significant hearing loss.
What kinds of jobs are people doing at Home Depot? According to Diane Acord, Minnesota’s Deaf2Work applicants are working in a variety of departments at local retail stores. "We are filling job vacancies for cart lot attendants, stockers, banders, forklift drivers, lawn and garden workers, warehouse workers, and cashiers," said Acord. She continued: "That's right, we have two deaf individuals placed as cashiers who work directly with Home Depot’s hearing customers! It has worked out just great so far. Of course, Home Depot has made back-up provisions to provide communication support for its hearing customers as the need calls for it."
So how do deaf/HOH employees communicate with Home Depots’ managers and peer associates? Of course, communication styles and techniques vary widely and are customized to the preferences of each associate placed. The communication support needs of a culturally deaf individual is vastly different in approach than strategies to support a hard of hearing individual who is losing auditory reception. OCS professionals are trained in communication methods that can support a deaf or HOH individual in making choices that in turn make employment in the workforce viable and comfortable for all parties.
Home Depot has been very supportive and understands the importance of investing in job accommodations that make a difference according to Acord. She indicates that the national retailer has purchased text pagers for deaf/HOH associates hired by their stores in the Twin Cities. And more recently, Home Depot has moved towards equipping hired associates with "Blackberry" electronic devices to enhance their communications.
Is it working? During my recent visit with Joseph, a member of my tour group asked him about his communications with customers and other store associates. Joseph shared that a few co-workers were learning basic signs but a majority of his communications were through gestures, written notes, and other means. He doesn’t work with many customers directly but has a plan to support them should he encounter customers in the store. At this point, Joseph shot back a big smile to our group making his point perfectly.
Diane Acord shared with us that 11 of the 12 individuals placed through Minnesota’s version of the Deaf2Work program remain employed at this time. They are earning an average of more than $11.00 per hour and most are working on a full-time basis with benefits. Although the program is still relatively new, the productivity of these workers combined with a job retention performance of 92% has Home Depot’s store managers raving about its success. With this program now proven in two states, Home Depot Corporation is hoping to expand the Deaf2Work program to other states. And officials in the State of Minnesota are now mobilizing to examine how to expand this employment initiative with retail stores in greater Minnesota so people who live in more rural regions of our State have the same opportunities.
As we were winding down our visit with Joseph at the Minneapolis store, he shared a personal matter that touched everyone in our group. You see, finding a competitive job for this deaf immigrant from Romania was not only about making a living for himself. We learned later in our conversation that he has other intrinsic motivations for working. Joseph told us that he sends a portion of his paycheck back home to Romania to help his mother who is in ill-health and cannot afford the necessary medical coverage to care for herself properly. It was clear to all that he deeply valued his employment at Home Depot and was making every effort to do a good job for the retailer. There were a number of misty eyes as our tour group bid its farewell to Joseph on this sunny afternoon.
So let’s see here...
  • A nationally recognized retailer is promoting the employment integration of people with disabilities?
  • This business has approved a structured, planned process for making pre-employment testing accommodations more accessible?
  • Hired associates are making competitive wages and benefits?
  • A workplan is in force to share expertise and better integrate resources from the private and public sectors to make employment a reality for non-traditional employees?
  • Blackberries are being purchased by this business to enhance the communications of deaf and HOH associates?
  • Deaf cashiers are now serving hearing retail customers?
  • Supported employment services are in place for retail associates who ongoing assistance?
Wow! I think I have just visited the future. And you know what? The view looks pretty darn good from there!


Anonymous maria said...

thank u for this article..I'll try to send this to my employer. It had been a hard time for me...Living with disabilities is difficult.
Does Florida has something like this program?
My email is

4:41 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Hi Maria!

Thank you for writing and your interest in the Minnesota Employment Center for People who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing (MEC). As you have probably guessed, our program is very unique and there are few programs in the country dedicated specifically to the job placement and employment support of adults who are deaf/HOH. We get a lot of interest around the country from people like yourself who are looking for options.

My blog article is about a collaboration with Home Depot and Minnesota Rehabilitation Services (RS). Deaf2Work is an interesting and exciting employment initiative that has resulted in integrated job opportunities for a number of the people we serve. Of course, we place individuals into jobs at other companies that make sense for them based on their unique interests, skills, training, and needs. I am unaware of organizations that provide similar services to MEC in Florida but I am going to pass your comments along to MEC's Program Manager and our RS contact to see if they have any contacts or knowledge about employment resources in your State. We will try to post information here or email you back if we can come with some ideas for you.

Maria, thanks for writing and best wishes to you.

11:54 AM  

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