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Meet the team increasing workplace accessibility for Deaf coders

By: Katy Brennan

The phrases “Deaf community” and “coding” are rarely associated with one another. When googled together, a few results pop up: accessible coding curriculums, nonprofits teaching Deaf children to code and various news stories. While helpful, there is a notable gap in the preliminary search results. There are no clear resources for technology companies to improve hiring practices for prospective deaf employees. There are no popular communities for Deaf coders to discuss “hacks” for being accommodated in the workplace. There are no outlined paths for people in the Deaf community to break into the tech industry. 

For Deaf coder John Towery, he is familiar with this scarcity of resources. John recently began to code as a career, and started to note this lack of communities for fellow Deaf coders; there is no distinct corner of the Internet to discuss technology or strategies to navigate workplaces geared towards hearing employees. In an effort to address this problem, he is working with Nina Baliga at <div>ersity to create these spaces and provide employers with trainings to create an accessible workplace. 

The pair connected in January of this year (2019), and began to work to develop this comprehensive training for employers. They observed that employers nationwide are working to diversify and include people with disabilities in their workforce, but they often lack a helping hand to show them how they can do so effectively. John and Nina hope that their trainings will be the push that employers need to create that accessible workplace and to begin to hire more Deaf employees. 

In addition to encouraging employers, John aims to empower other Deaf coders to break into the tech industry. He noted that it’s often difficult for Deaf people to work in jobs like construction because employers lack confidence in a Deaf employee’s ability to do the job. However, in tech — and other desk jobs — there is more room to use technology, ASL interpretive services, and alternative forms of communication (such as email/IM) to engage in a workplace; resultantly, this can increase employer confidence and create employment opportunities for Deaf coders.

The particular technology that John has found the most helpful in the workplace and conference has been the apps zoom and ava. Zoom is compatible with Video Relay Services (VRS), a live ASL interpretive service provided by the federal government for any phone call, allowing for John to participate in business calls. While it is not perfect, most tech companies use Zoom, making its compatibility with VRS extremely useful for Deaf coders. Additionally, for in person conversations, John sometimes uses Ava, an app that provides live subtitles for any conversation. Collectively, these technologies — in addition to others — allow Deaf employees to better participate in the tech industry. Though, it is important to note that an interpreter is still preferred for interviews due to reliability and accuracy of communication. 

The training that the pair has created is currently being finalized, and companies can reach out to Nina to learn more about the program. The ultimate objective of this training is to dispel common misconceptions about accessibility and inclusion of Deaf employees. Employers often believe that it would be expensive to accommodate employees with disabilities; yet, this is not always the case. 

"There’s this fallacy that creating accessible communities for Deaf employees is very costly,” Nina shared. “However, as a startup, I can tell you that it was not expensive to work with John."

John later noted that it was not expensive because he had an interpreter provided to him by the Vocational Rehabilitation office when he began to work with Nina. He added that it is always preferred to use an interpreter for interviews, and some Deaf individuals may prefer to use an interpreter in all contexts depending on their preferences. Therefore, there can be some expense to these services, particularly if an individual cannot access a Vocational Rehabilitation office, but the use of services like Zoom and Ava — which Nina refers to — is relatively inexpensive.

Beyond pricing, employers sometimes believe that accessibility features will only benefit people with disabilities. However, technology like closed captioning can benefit a wide range of employees, both disabled and able-bodied. Some hearing people prefer to use captioning in order to maintain their attention during speeches, movies and other hearing-intensive activities. Thus, creating an accessible workplace is not always costly and often benefits all employees — not just those with disabilities. 

John and Nina shared will continue this effort to combat misconceptions and increase employment within the deaf community as they role out their trainings. John adamantly believes in the positive effects of paying it forward and is passionate about creating these spaces for fellow Deaf coders. Together, the pair will begin to train and empower companies to hire more employees with hearing loss in the future.

If you are an employer interested in hearing more about the trainings John and Nina have created, you can contact Nina at nina@hirediversity.us