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Kudos to federal workers helping a deaf colleague

By Ed O'Keefe

Eye Opener

An e-mail forwarded to The Federal Eye this week demonstrates the lengths to which some federal workers are willing to go to recruit and retain qualified colleagues who also happen to be disabled.

An Office of Personnel Management employee attending American University sent an e-mail to fellow students seeking anyone with sign language skills.

"We are currently seeking a volunteer sign language interpreter for a few hours or days a week," the e-mail said. "The person will be needed to provide valuable assistance to one of our newest talented hires. The primary duty will be translating spoken language and sign language. Your support in this effort is greatly appreciated."

The new "talented" hire is a student intern from Gallaudet University who is deaf, OPM said. She joined the agency's employee services division this summer and is being trained as a staffing specialist -- essentially a clerical position. She will continue as a part-time intern this fall, according to OPM Deputy Director Christine Griffin.

But why would OPM need to recruit an unpaid volunteer sign language interpreter to help the intern -- why couldn't OPM just hire someone? Should OPM hire deaf workers who can't communicate easily with her colleagues, and then pay the extra expense to accommodate her disability?

Yes, absolutely, said Griffin. OPM does it, as do other agencies. (And for the record, The Eye in no way objects.)

"We hire sign language interpreters on contract," Griffin said Thursday. "We hire interpreters for people as an accommodation when we're having meetings and something more complex."

But the intern's coworkers want to learn some basic sign language so they can more easily communicate with her and make her feel more comfortable around the office, Griffin said. The volunteer interpreters -- if they find any (they haven't yet) -- will lead brown bag lunches and training sessions with workers eager to learn basic sign language, Griffin said. (Anyone interested and capable should contact OPM's Mike Mahoney.)

Just over 5 percent of federal employees are disabled and less than 1 percent are people with targeted disabilities -- defined as deafness, blindness, mental retardation, dwarfism and paraplegia, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The employment rate for disabled Americans is five percent lower than people without disabilities, said White House Disability Adviser Kareem Dale.

"There's been progress," Dale said in an interview last month. "There are private-sector companies doing great things, whether it's with employment or technology, but we need to do more."

It's good to see at least some federal workers doing a bit more. They're demonstrating through their actions that can and will hire talented people with disabilities and make accommodations to keep them. Let's hope other parts of the government follow suit.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

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By Ed O'Keefe  | August 20, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye Opener, Workplace Issues  
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As a disabled person, I am so happy for the deaf employee whose fellow workers are going to such lengths so make her feel more comfortable and part of their team on the job. This will go so far for her. I became sick with Lupus and Fibromyalgia, 2 diffcult diseases to live with and understand myself, while teaching and had to learn how to adjust to my new body. It wasn't easy and the teachers in my own department were not kind to me. Others, however, were more supportive, especially administration. They knew how hard I tried to be "like normal" as my body failed to let me go on in my job. It took only 2+ years before my body became too diseased to allow me to continue and I was heartbroken as I loved my teaching and reaching out to my students. They were so wonderful trying to make my job easier as well. The frienship and commarderie being shown here is exceptional and I applaud them!

Posted by: Marilyn426 | August 20, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

I've had a profound military-related hearing loss for over 50 years...and I'm terribly isolated both occupationally and socially. I applaud any accommodations employers can provide their workers and prospective employees. I do not sign and most speakers I encounter do not either. I hear adequately in favorable environments if speakers look directly at me, ennunciate with care and with adequate volume...and I also offer a writing pad and pencil to empathetic individuals. But most folks don't want to bother with the hearing impaired and I'm effectively nonexistent. The internet has been a godsend which provides a window-on-the- world...and also allows some truncated but mostly satisfactory social interaction.

I'm to renew my automobile registeration this I'll present the agency with a carefully prepared instruction sheet and exhibits... and offer my writing pad! I'll cope since I'm retired and can sometimes fashion such solutions... but in a fast-paced, competative work environemnt I'd be lost.

Posted by: greenverdeverdi | August 20, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

I'm deaf but not one of those deaf people (meaning not a gallaudet product). The vast majority of those products are under the impression the ADA granst them the legal right to be joined at the hip with a sign language interpreter everyday, all day, 40 hours a workweek. It's time to wake up. Deaf people have a 70% unemployment rate (which is near universal for all disabilities, across the spectrum) because employers see this attitude and believe they are getting one employee for the price of two. My best friend, a pediatrician in Rochester NY (yes, a deaf doctor) lost his job over this issue. He has since had a rebirth, if you will. Nowhere in the ADA does it say you have the legal right to an interpreter, everywhere, always. It simply says your employer has to make a reasonable accommodation. But you know... spilt milk and all that. Personally, that is the choice they have to live with because evidently, someone told them it was OK to sequester yourself behind an iron gate and make like it's 1870.

Posted by: biffgrifftheoneandonly | August 20, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

While the employee who sent a call for volunteers was certainly well-meaning, I would hope that s/he knows there is a very significant difference between people who can sign and people who are qualified interpreters, as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Sign language interpreting is a profession in itself, and OPM and all other federal agencies know (or should know) how to secure professional sign language interpreting services.

What is being described here, "...lead brown bag lunches and training sessions with workers eager to learn basic sign language," is not interpreting, but sign language teaching. This is also a profession, so again, I'm not sure why the call is for volunteers--and why it's to AU, not Gallaudet or other area schools and agencies serving people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Our College or Professional Studies and Outreach offers American Sign Language classes and has a long history of collaboration with federal agencies and private sector employers. See

Robert Weinstock
Gallaudet University

Posted by: RobertWeinstock | August 20, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

When I worked for a federal agency in Nevada we had a hearing impaired employee who was literally ignored and worked in virtual isolation for many years. When a manager with a disability was hired, he placed this employee into a new position with promotion opportunities and under a great supervisor. We had a contract for sign language intepreters for this employee. His new supervisor and some of her staff wanted to learn sign language so they could communicate with this employee to help him to learn his new job. We found a way to fund the training. After having worked in virtual isolation from the rest of the workforce for 10 years, I saw such a dramatic change in this employee's personality in such a short period of time. I had never seen him smile before this time. Until this time no one knew who he really was. I give a lot of kudos to his new supervisor for going the extra mile to make him feel included and not excluded. When this employee's sister unexpectedly passed away, his supervisor paid for the interpreter (out of her own pocket) to sign for him at his sister's funeral. We need more superivor's like this in federal government.

Posted by: Nevadaandy | August 20, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Gallaudet is racist

Posted by: jiji1 | August 23, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

While we applaud efforts of inclusiveness for persons in the workplace regardless of disability, we, as a Deaf-owned company that provides interpreting services, have serious concerns about the use of students and volunteers serving as interpreters on any level. Interactions between colleagues, even when not involving actual work matters, are filled with important, nuanced information. The skills necessary to accurately navigate these kinds of intricacies are not taught in a basic American Sign Language (ASL) class. The danger of using a volunteer ‘interpreter’ is that everyone involved in the interaction may assume that accurate communication has taken place, when in fact important information may have been missed or misunderstood.

One wouldn’t wish to take a business trip to Russia and rely on a college student with one semester of English to serve as an interpreter, even over lunch. We don’t expect a colleague who took three years of German in high school to teach brown bag German lessons at work. American Sign Language is a complex language in its own right with its own grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

For many years, people who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing have missed out on critical career opportunities because they lacked clear and accurate communication in the workplace. With the advent of progressive disability legislation and the evolution of rigorous ethical standards and training for professional interpreters, those barriers have come down. Today, Deaf and hard-of-hearing professionals have seen tremendous career opportunities open up.

In order to achieve national certification, professional interpreters must have a college degree, and a minimum of twenty hours of continuing education is required annually to maintain that certification. To go back in time to a "make-do attitude" is to do a disservice to Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees and their hearing colleagues, who miss out on the opportunity to effectively communicate in the workplace.

Robert Rice, Owner
Deaf Access Solutions

Posted by: Ricey1 | August 26, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

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