New techies with disabilities transcend workplace barriers
�The more diversity a company has, the more access it has to different points of view.� � Adriana Gaylord, Riva Precision
�Many of my coworkers are learning American Sign Language from me.�
� Steven Forney, University of Alabama-Huntsville
By Angela Marie Hutchinson
Senior Contributing Editor
Because a more diverse workforce fosters innovation, companies benefit when they hire talented professionals with a variety of backgrounds and physical attributes. That includes technical pros with disabilities.
People with disabilities are seriously underrepresented in the technical labor force, according to the National Science Foundation�s Women, Minorities and People with Disabilities 2013, a report issued every two years. The study, available at www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd, showed that professionals with disabilities make up 13 percent of all employed persons but comprise only about 5 percent of workers in science and engineering fields.
Exploring possibilities through education
Educational institutions that focus on people with disabilities can increase their chance of finding appropriate work. The National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), one of nine colleges of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT, NY), was created in 1965 by Congress to provide technical postsecondary education to deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
�We have established partnerships with businesses and government agencies throughout the country that offer our students ten-week co-ops,� says John Macko, director of NTID�s Center on Employment. �Not only does this give our students real-world experience, it often gets them a foot in the door for a fulltime position upon graduation.
�It also benefits the employers, who may hesitate to hire a deaf or hard-of-hearing worker,� he adds. �Successful co-ops can show employers how easily they can accommodate workers with disabilities.�
Getting the executive outlook on diversity
When hiring managers and diversity executives understand that technical professionals with disabilities have unique skills and can bring a special perspective to a team, they are more open to hiring them, Macko points out.
The NTID�s Center on Employment offers industry-specific workshops to prospective employers on how to work with someone with a hearing loss. �In addition, NTID hosts an annual job fair where dozens of employers gather resumes and interview students for co-ops or permanent jobs,� Macko says.
National Grid (Waltham, MA) recruits diverse professionals through organizations such as the National Business and Disability Council, Work Without Limits, and Services for the Underserved. National Grid works closely with the New York City mayor�s office for people with disabilities, particularly during the annual disability mentoring day event.
�At the event, activities include hands-on career exploration and onsite job shadowing. National Grid employees also provide ongoing mentoring,� says Maryjane L. Baer, director of U.S. recruiting and inclusion and diversity.
�A talent base that is diverse and inclusive in every way unleashes a wealth of knowledge, abilities and creativity, bringing success to individual members, teams and our business.�
Steven Forney: research associate at the University of Alabama-Huntsville
Research associate Steven Forney works at the Systems Management and Production (SMAP) center at the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH). SMAP provides expertise, leadership and support to the U.S. Army, other government agencies and private sector organizations.
Forney�s main responsibility is to explore and adapt leading-edge technologies to specific project applications. He also
helps internship students at UAH, researches and reverse-engineers proposed projects, and does programming for a small-scale unmanned aerial system (UAS). In addition, he�s the point person for UAH student teams whose senior projects are sponsored by the SMAP Center.
Forney particularly enjoys conducting field experiments with the UAS automation system. �In the lab, there are several amazing machines, including 3D printers, that we use in proof-of-concept experiments,� he says. �I use the 3D printed parts to replace worn-out parts for the drones.�
Adjusting to the mainstream work environment
Raised as a �military brat,� Forney lived in five different states before settling in Huntsville. He received a bachelors degree in electrical/mechanical engineering from the College of Applied Science and Technology at RIT in 2012. While there, he had the support of services provided through RIT�s NTID.
During his enrollment at RIT, Forney underwent surgery to receive a cochlear implant, an electronic device that provides a sense of sound to deaf or severely hard-of-hearing individuals by stimulating a nerve in the inner ear.
Initially, Forney was sorry to leave RIT�s rich deaf community to work for UAH. But he was drawn there by his passion for small-scale drones, which he worked with during his first SMAP internship. Once at UAH, he found his coworkers supportive.
�Although I am the only deaf person in the SMAP department, I always find ways to communicate with the students I work with and my fellow employees,� Forney says. �We have whiteboards in almost every room that we use to share thoughts.� Forney and his coworkers also communicate through hangouts on the Google+ social media site.
�Many of the students and my coworkers are learning American Sign Language from me,� he adds. �They are becoming quite fluent.�
It may take time for industry to learn about the deaf culture and to create an environment that is completely comfortable for deaf professionals, Forney says. But he feels privileged to be part of the movement.
Joshua Carl Heitkamp: IT specialist for the U.S. Air Force
In January, Joshua Carl Heitkamp became a systems administrator with the network operations section of the U.S. Air Force 502nd communications squadron at Joint Base San Antonio, TX.
For the previous three years, Heitkamp worked as a communications and information Palace Acquire intern/IT specialist at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. The Palace Acquire (PAQ) program is a gateway for recent college graduates to launch a civil service career with the Air Force. �The PAQ program is a fast-track internship focused on developing leadership and management skills, and is aimed at recruiting top performers to fill positions in many different career fields,� says Heitkamp. �Employment starts off with three years of formal training followed by a job in your specialty.�
As a PAQ intern, Heitkamp participated in rotational assignments, on-the-job training, and a variety of temporary-duty training seminars and conferences. A PAQ intern may get annual promotions and salary increases up to the target grade for that position.
�As a third-year PAQ for the 902nd communications squadron, my last rotation was with the budget/resources office,� he says. Heitkamp survived being the �new guy� in seventeen different work centers during his time with the Air Force. �So I believe that qualifies me to check the box that says �deals effectively with change,�� he says.
Heitkamp�s first intern assignment was with the project management office. He got a six-month-long $250,000 wiring project to manage from start to finish.
�At first, I thought I was in over my head,� he says. �In the end, I pulled it off, and five buildings on base were completely rewired with more than 650 new CAT6 Ethernet cables, on budget and on time, without end users being displaced.�
Overcoming the challenges of Parkinson�s disease
Heitkamp grew up on the northeast side of San Antonio and stayed in Texas for college. He earned his 2004 bachelors degree in business administration in information and operations management from Texas A&M; University (College Station).
In summer 2003, Heitkamp noticed a tremor in his right hand. Shortly after, he started having difficulty walking. �For the next five years, I would be misdiagnosed with anxiety-related disorders, despite the fact that I had told doctors that I believed I had Parkinson�s,� he says.
By 2008, Heitkamp�s symptoms were getting worse and he knew his condition could no longer be written off as anxiety. That year, he was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson�s disease.
Although medication can provide temporary relief, Heitkamp experiences all the classic symptoms of Parkinson�s disease: slowness of movement, lack of balance, tremor, stiffness and difficulty walking. That makes his mobility an issue on the job.
�It can be quite frustrating. I think by far the hardest thing to deal with is the gait disturbance, especially freezing gait,� he says. �Freezing gait is the inability to take the next step as if one�s feet become frozen to the floor. It can occur when my medicine level gets low or a dose has worn off, when I am startled, or when something unexpected happens. It can be very brief or it can last several seconds when it occurs.�
For the most part, though, Heitkamp manages well in the workplace and, on a good day, his disability is not noticeable, he says.
Heitkamp appreciates that he is treated no differently than his colleagues. �I don�t feel like any special concessions are made for me because of my disability,� he says. �The people in my squadron and the Air Force community as a whole are very accepting of differences because the vast majority of them have spent time in other countries. Both military personnel and civilians are exposed to different ideas and customs.�
Heitkamp believes that an organization cannot succeed in the long run without innovation. �Innovation requires thinking outside the box. A disability presents a challenge or problem that deviates from the norm. Overcoming that challenge requires resourcefulness and adaptability, and these are the traits that drive innovation.�
Diversity at the U.S. Air Force fosters creative solutions
�Our Air Force capabilities are enhanced by diversity among all our people. At its core, diversity provides an aggregation of strengths, perspectives and capabilities that transcend individual contributions to the mission,� says Debra A. Warner, director of civilian force integration and a senior executive service member at the Pentagon (Washington, DC).
�Air Force decision-making and operational capabilities are enhanced by diversity among airmen, uniformed and civilian, helping make the Air Force more agile, innovative and effective.�
According to Warner, diversity provides the Air Force a competitive edge in air, space and cyberspace. �Diversity is an imperative if the Air Force civilian service is to remain competitive in attracting and retaining America�s best talent,� she says. �We have a legacy of leading the way in removing barriers to opportunity. Our efforts are ongoing, and we continue to analyze our processes to ensure we eliminate barriers to success.�
Adriana Gaylord: productivity analysis at Riva Precision Manufacturing
In October 2013, Adriana Gaylord was hired by jewelry manufacturer Riva Precision Manufacturing (Brooklyn, NY). She started as a document designer.
�I created and updated standard operating procedure documents for the machinery, measuring tools and department structure to meet ISO 9001 certification,� she says. �Also, I created and implemented preventive maintenance task lists and schedules, and recoded maintenance work orders.�
In early 2018, she moved to a new role position as a productivity analyst. �I review employees� performance and efficiency and each department�s output every day.� It�s a challenging job, she says, because she works with many different areas of the company. �Every week I make improvement in two or three departments,� she reports.
In 2010, Gaylord earned an associates degree in computer integrated machining technology from RIT. In 2013, she earned a bachelors degree in manufacturing engineering technology.
She held several internships during college. One was with the Corpus Christi (TX) Army depot as a machinist helper, where she did setup procedures and operated computer numerical control machines. She also interned with Dow Chemical Company in Seadrift, TX as a production engineer. There she was responsible for investigating and resolving safety issues. In addition, she helped develop a process to install new equipment.
Next she worked at Borg Warner Morse TEC (Ithaca, NY) as a manufacturing engineering co-op. She maintained and updated process failure mode effects analysis documentation for machining and assembly lines. �I developed master parts to confirm machining line process stability. I did trouble-shooting to help improve a few line products assembly processes,� she says. Gaylord was hired by Riva at a Gemological Institute of America career fair.
Adapting communication styles
Gaylord was born and raised in Houston, TX. �I am the only person in my family who is hard of hearing. I had speech therapy at a young age and continued in public school,� she says. �Before I attended RIT/NTID, I had very few friends who were hard of hearing. Now, half my friends are hearing and half are deaf.�
Gaylord can�t hear high-tone sound, but she does hear low tones, she explains. She finds her hearing aid useful, but, she says, �It can be challenging to communicate in a manufacturing environment. However, I have learned a few different ways over the years to communicate with coworkers.�
Gaylord generally reads her coworkers� lips and responds vocally. She makes a point to ask coworkers to repeat information if she doesn�t understand something. Also, if a coworker speaks with a heavy accent, she repeats the information to the person to ensure they are on the same page.
�Hearing people can talk to each other without looking at each other, or even converse over the walls of their cubicles,� Gaylord notes. �They can even be in completely different rooms. But I have to see the person and give him or her my full attention to carry on a conversation.�
Gaylord values her job and knows that her contribution matters to Riva. �The more diversity a company has, the more access it will have to different points of view and different ideas to find solutions or improve products,� she says.
Robin Alummoottil: logistics control at Toyota
Since April 2013, Robin Alummoottil has worked at Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, Inc (Erlanger, KY) as a logistics control packaging specialist. His job focuses on reducing cost and space impact by improving packaging in new models. He develops and implements changes in packaging systems and processes while following Toyota standards. �I bring a strong focus and a commitment to continuous improvement to my job,� he says.
Alummoottil, whose family is from Kerala, India, was born in Michigan and raised in Texas. �My parents found out that I was deaf when I was two years old. I have had cochlear implants since I was three,� he says. In 2013, Alummoottil graduated with a bachelors degree in packaging science from RIT NTID.
�My deafness does present challenges in terms of communication,� he says. �It�s hard to participate in teleconference meetings, which seem to be essential here, as well as group meetings,� he says. �My coworker/assistant manager is usually there to support me and summarize things for me after meetings, which helps a lot.�
Leveraging diversity across cultures
One reason Alummoottil chose to work for Toyota is that he had a great five-month co-op experience at Toyota during college. Mentors were influential in helping Alummoottil land his fulltime position.
�Since Toyota�s headquarters is in Japan, they always emphasize diversity at work. I learned some Japanese words and how to greet in Japanese culture,� he says. �I would like to share more about my Indian origin, as well as make others aware of deaf culture. I believe it�ll open their minds even more to what is out in the world.�
Alummoottil believes it is good for professionals to have knowledge of all the cultures represented within a workplace because it allows colleagues to better understand one another. �People treating each other respectfully can lead to more productivity and to a more enjoyable work life, too,� he says.
�Toyota emphasizes the principles of continuous improvement and also respect for others. We learn new things every day and challenge ourselves to improve ourselves every day,� Alummoottil says. �If I�m struggling, they�re more than glad to help me. With that kind of attitude, it�s good to work in this environment.�
Bradley Frank: information system specialist for Dow Chemical Company
For the past six months Bradley Frank has worked as an information system specialist in support of next enterprise architecture (NEA) platforms for the Dow Chemical Company (Midland, MI).
Frank maintains the next enterprise architecture technology (NEAT) internal website that provides self-service information and processes to the NEA Windows community. He also manages the IP address management (IPAM) system.
Frank, who grew up in Texas, was born deaf. In 2010, he received an associates degree in applied computer technology at RIT NTID. He received a bachelors degree in information technology from RIT in 2013.
During college, Frank interned with Dow on the information system mobile and collaboration team and as a tech management web and database developer. He also had a job at RIT, where he developed and extended accessible viewing device (AVD) software.
�Working for Dow gives me many opportunities to expand my experience in the business world. Not only do I want to improve my skills, but I also want to help Dow become a more valuable company,� he says.
When Frank first arrived at the company, he realized that he would need a video phone.
�When I told them how important it was for me to have one, they were open to my needs and provided me with one as soon as possible. They make sure I have everything I need for work,� he says. �I like to work with people who are flexible and listen to my ideas to improve our work process.�
Frank continues to educate Dow Chemical about deaf culture and adaptive technology resources. �I participate in Dow�s disability employee network as an American Sign Language (ASL) coordinator. I host and teach ASL classes for Dow employees, and I really enjoy that,� he says. �One of our deaf members was selected to give a presentation at local schools about disabled people going to college and having successful careers.�
Dow works hard to recruit and retain a diverse workforce, Frank says. �Diversity is not just good for the company. It also introduces employees to people with various backgrounds and disabilities.�
Alexandra Johnson: life analysis engineer at GE Aviation
Alexandra Johnson works as a life analysis engineer for GE Aviation (Evendale, OH) at the company�s Lynn, MA facility. She has been with the company for almost three years. Johnson is responsible for building models of jet engine rotating parts and performing analyses to determine the number of hours the parts can be safely operated before they need to be replaced.
�My daily duties might include supporting the certification of a new part or providing support to a customer. I must communicate with customers clearly and promptly, as well as attend meetings and prepare presentations so my results can be reviewed by senior and principal engineers,� she says.
Johnson is profoundly deaf and has two cochlear implants to help her function throughout the day. �I was diagnosed with a hearing loss when I was six months old and used hearing aids with some success until I was about two and a half. Around that time, my hearing deteriorated to the point where hearing aids were no longer beneficial for me,� she says.
Johnson received her first cochlear implant on her right side when she was three years old. Fourteen years later, she had one implanted on her left side.
In 2011, Johnson graduated from the Kate Gleason College of Engineering at RIT with a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering. During her time in college, she completed two co-ops.
�My first co-op was with Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where I studied clay polymer aerogel composites and presented a research poster and paper with my results,� she says. �My second was with GE Aviation where I worked in supply chain and supported the production of the F414/F404 engine line.�
Johnson had such a great work experience during her co-op with GE Aviation that she accepted an offer to become a fulltime employee.
�GE Aviation also has an excellent technical and leadership development program for young engineers called the Edison Engineering Development Program, or EEDP,� she says. �Participants, called Edisons, complete three year-long rotations in different technical positions to explore career paths at GE Aviation. They also take additional leadership and technical development courses at GE.�
Pushing the boundaries
On the job, Johnson experiences some difficulties using the phone, especially when the person on the other end of the conversation is not a native English speaker.
�GE is a global company, so sometimes I work with engineers from other countries. I work around the phone issue by using e-mail and instant messaging,� she says.
�Whenever possible, I have face-to-face meetings with my colleagues on site. It can be challenging to follow discussions in a larger meeting where people are calling into the teleconference line and are speaking over the phones. I once did a rotation where I needed to work closely with engineers in India and there were a few over-the-phone meetings that I needed to attend,� she says. �I asked a coworker to take notes or to repeat what was being said so I could follow the discussion.� Otherwise Johnson�s disability does not affect her day-to-day functions, she says.
Johnson enjoys the professional challenges of her job. �I love being surrounded by people who value passion, imagination, inclusiveness and character. They inspire me to be my best every day and to push the boundaries of my comfort zones and grow, not only as an engineer, but also as a person.�
According to Johnson, homogeneity breeds homogeneity. �It�s vital to value diverse people, ideas and ways of thinking because that is the path to the innovative problem solving that pushes the limits of current technology.�
At GE Aviation, diversity is a part of creativity
GE Aviation sees diversity and inclusiveness as an essential part of the company�s productivity, creativity and competitive advantage.
�Our recruitment strategy leverages universities, our recruiting website, diversity organizations, and our employees globally to source the most qualified, diverse candidates,� says Nancy Dunn, manager of diversity and inclusiveness.
�Qualified individuals with disabilities and disabled veterans have the right to request a reasonable accommodation if they don�t have the ability to use or access the tools they need in their jobs.�
GE believes that diversity is essential to innovation and success. �It allows us to connect engineers, scientists, teachers, leaders and doers with different experiences,� says Dunn. �By bringing individuals, cultures and ideas together, we create a stronger company and a better world.�
Back to Top