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Deaf techs make their voices heard

Some deaf professionals are changing the world with their work. Many are teaching their colleagues best practices in accommodating disabilities

"I suggest that we all treat each other with respect and not be afraid." - Darlene Steiner, IBM


Darlene Steiner works from her Colorado home as a senior project manager for IBM global services.

Darlene Steiner works from her Colorado home as a senior project manager for IBM global services.

Intel IE Lindsay Buchko signs and talks together to remind people she's deaf.

Intel IE Lindsay Buchko signs and talks together to remind people she's deaf.

In the past, deafness was an extremely isolating disability. It was not handled well by most public schools, leaving many students with imperfect educations. This made it difficult, sometimes impossible, for deaf people to get good jobs.

As accessibility technology advances, people with hearing loss are making great strides in education and in the workplace. And the deaf culture movement has promoted a tremendous sense of comradeship and achievement.

Today, deaf professionals in IT and engineering are doing work that makes life better for everyone, while helping their colleagues learn appropriate ways to interact with the deaf.

Functioning in society
Although the National Institutes of Health report that 10 percent of the U.S. population has some degree of hearing loss, "Some hearing people never cease to be amazed that individuals who are deaf are able to function in society," notes Dr T. Alan Hurwitz. Hurwitz is CEO and dean of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, which is part of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT, Rochester, NY), of which he's a VP.

Hearing people "don't realize that deaf people drive cars, travel all over the country and worldwide, and are able to enjoy leisure and recreation," Hurwitz says. "People who can't hear or walk or see can bring the same skills and creativity to the workplace as people without disabilities."

That's certainly true of the deaf tech pros we interviewed for this article. All are doing important work; many are reaching beyond their day jobs to help others learn to live and cope with disabilities.

Kathleen Croteau: HP software engineer and project lead
Kathleen Croteau

Kathleen Croteau

As a software engineer at the Marlboro, MA location of HP (Palo Alto, CA), Kathleen Croteau spends 80 percent of her day in the lab. She tests fiber channel host bus adapters (HBAs) and sets up the servers and storage needed to perform the tests.

Croteau also takes an interactive role with colleagues and vendors. She's been a project lead for three years, working with many people throughout the day. HP offers her a lot of support, she says. "The company gives me the tools I need to do my job. I have access to a TTY text telephone, a BlackBerry, and an FM listening system whenever I need one."

HP is now providing captioning for conference calls, using the relatively new Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) technology. It's been very helpful. "It's so different knowing what's going on during meetings and being able to share my opinion," Croteau says.

Croteau, like many others both deaf and hearing, finds e-mail and instant messaging excellent ways to communicate with colleagues. She often wonders how she survived without them, she says with a laugh.

HP has done other helpful things for the deaf community. "We have local deaf support groups that teach sign language," Croteau says. "They've also put up a website so anyone who wants to can learn signing."

Croteau first noticed her hearing loss when she was in grammar school. Her hearing deteriorated through her childhood, culminating in a diagnosis of bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.

"My hearing loss did not affect me much as a child," Croteau says. "I was not treated any differently from my three older sisters. I went to the same private school and had no special disability services. My friends all treated me the same."

High school was a different story. She got less personal attention than she had at the private school, but rose to the challenge.

"I started losing more of my hearing in late high school and early college, so those were my hardest years. All I was thinking was, 'What jobs are out there that deaf people can do?'

She had always excelled in computers and business, but hadn't been sure that was what she wanted to do. "Now I decided it wasn't a choice; it was my only option."

She received an associates degree in business admin from Mount Wachusett Community College (Gardner, MA) in 1998 and a BS in MIS from Nichols College (Dudley, MA) in 2000. She attended a job fair, interviewed with HP and found herself with both a job and a career path ahead of her.

Croteau recently received cochlear implants and is adjusting to her new ability to hear sounds. With time and practice, she hopes to be able to communicate by regular telephone.

"It's important to be up front with your coworkers about your disabilities," Croteau advises. "If I have a problem hearing people, I tell them right away. What works for me is finding two or three people that I can really count on. Then whenever I need translation, I always have someone around.

"During conference calls I used to have someone sit in with me and tell me what was going on, but that's all changed now that captioning services are available." For in-person conferences, she still makes sure her colleagues know she lip reads, and that they need to look at her when they talk.

"As I grew up my dreams changed and I changed with them. I'm where I am now, regardless of how I got here. I don't regret joining the IT field," Croteau says. "I love working in the engineering labs. I have a knack for it."

Darlene Steiner supports a group at IBM
Darlene Steiner

Darlene Steiner

As a senior project manager at IBM Global Services (White Plains, NY), Darlene Steiner helps support a large group in the company. Global Services is IBM's consulting organization, and Steiner is establishing an office to help the director and his colleagues manage the business more consistently.

Steiner works from her home in Boulder, CO and communicates with colleagues through instant messaging, e-mail and conference calls. The work-from-home arrangement, she notes, would not have been possible before the development of CART real-time captioning of conference calls and other technology like her BlackBerry.

Last year IBM began making BlackBerry devices available to all its deaf and hard-of-hearing employees. The BlackBerrys have tools like e-mail and Internet access to help deaf employees communicate with coworkers, and also an emergency alert system. In case of fire or evacuation, an IBM command center signals the involved BlackBerry holders to make sure they're aware of the emergency.

Steiner was born with severe, progressive hearing loss. But it was the 1960s, before hospitals were routinely testing the hearing of new babies, so her diagnosis didn't come through until she was three years old. As she grew up she was fitted with stronger and stronger hearing aids and given speech therapy.

Steiner graduated from Fort Lewis College (Durango, CO) with a major in math and a minor in CS in 1983. She interned at IBM during college and had a job waiting for her there after graduation.

When, in 1986, her hearing was completely gone, she decided on cochlear implants. She continues to use a number of techniques to communicate, but now she mainly relies on a combination of lip reading and the sounds she receives through the implant.

Besides her project management work, Steiner chairs IBM's global people with disabilities network. She arranges conference calls and coordinates speakers.

Accessibility issues and tools are popular topics on the network, of course. It's important to link people with technology that helps them work, Steiner agrees, but also important to link them up with colleagues who understand their challenges.

"I help people make contact with others who have similar disabilities. Hopefully the success, leadership and motivation of high-level IBM employees with disabilities will inspire others."

Many IBM employees with disabilities make a point of mentoring at local schools, Steiner notes. She's doing that herself with a program she set up at a local school for the deaf. "We are trying to help young students and their parents realize that although they may have a disability, they can still be successful," she explains.

"We all have lots of talent, skills and knowledge to offer. With proper support, people with disabilities can be effective and successful and go as far as they want. I suggest that we all treat each other with respect and not be afraid."

Charlie Murphy is a Boeing programmer/analyst
Charlie Murphy

Charlie Murphy

When Charlie Murphy started working at Boeing in 1966, he never dreamed he'd be there almost forty years later. That still amazes him, as do the exponential changes in accessibility technology over the time.

Murphy was born with profound hearing loss. Fortunately, he was able to get specialized education right from the start, at the Central Institute for the Deaf (St. Louis, MO). He learned excellent communication skills and felt comfortably adapted to the hearing world.

"I was able to lip read and speak well enough to keep most people happy," Murphy recalls with a smile.

Murphy went to high schools in New York and California. Then he attended Saint Louis University (St. Louis, MO) and Washington University (St. Louis, MO), graduating with a major in accounting and a minor in math. He applied for a job at Boeing and has been there ever since.

Today, as a programmer/analyst, Murphy analyzes and corrects application errors and helps with software development. He often relies on e-mail to communicate with coworkers. In addition, "Boeing provides interpreters for meetings and a TTY so I can make calls," Murphy says.

Murphy has always been active in volunteer work. He's been in his grade school's alumni association, helped develop teletype technology for the deaf, and worked with the Greater St. Louis Association for the Deaf.

His philosophy on communicating with hearing coworkers is to never give up. "I try to make people understand me, and if they don't, I keep right on going and eventually they get the hang of it," Murphy says with a smile.

"We wind up having a good time talking together."

Intel's Lindsay Buchko is an industrial engineer
Lindsay Buchko

Lindsay Buchko

Deaf since birth, Lindsay Buchko went to a school that helped her move into a classroom with hearing students. By sixth grade, "I knew what I needed to get my education, and the school was willing to work with me to provide me with the accommodations I needed," she says.

After high school Buchko attended the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY). She got her BSIE in 2003. This year she completed an MS in quality applied statistics at RIT and went to work at the Hillsboro, OR site of Intel (Santa Clara, CA) as an IE.

At Intel she's responsible for forecasting and monitoring production demands. She must be aware of both current and future technology needs, and make sure there are enough manufacturing tools to meet the demand. She uses mathematical models to do her forecasting and analysis.

She often uses e-mail and instant messaging to communicate with coworkers, but she's perfectly comfortable talking with them face to face. "While I prefer to sign, I also use my speech for convenience with hearing people," she explains. "Sometimes people forget that I'm deaf because my speech is so clear, so I'll sign and talk at the same time to remind them. I need to see their lips to understand what they're saying to me."

As she has since sixth grade, Buchko feels the responsibility to teach people about deaf culture and accommodations. "When I started at Intel I wrote out a list of dos and don'ts for my coworkers to get a better understanding of how to interact with me as a deaf person," she says. "I also plan to set up a sign language course for coworkers who may be interested in learning the language."

Robert Rice is president of BayFirst Solutions
Robert Rice

Robert Rice

Coming from a family of deaf people, Robert Rice learned not to let his disability stand in the way of his goals. "In many ways adversity makes you a stronger person," he says. "You are better equipped to deal with the situations that may come your way."

Rice has a 1994 BS in business management and a 1997 MBA with a concentration in IT from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at RIT. After working at two large technology consulting firms, he went on to start BayFirst Solutions (Washington, DC), a management and technology consulting firm that does organizational development, program management and systems engineering. Rice is its president and managing partner.

"Because we are deaf-owned, we go the extra mile and provide the needed accommodations for any employee who has a disability," Rice says. "For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, we encourage direct communication independent of technology or interpreter whenever possible, because it's an essential building block of business relationships."

Rice hopes his support of deaf employees will catch on throughout the nation. He's working toward that goal with BayFirst's Deaf Professional Happy Hour, which he terms a "flagship" event.

"We coordinate a monthly gathering of deaf and hard-of-hearing professionals," Rice says. "The event has recreated itself in numerous cities nationwide and is serving as an incredible networking tool for the community.

"We also maintain DeafDC.com, a Web-based resource for deaf professionals in the Washington, DC metro area."

In his own work, Rice uses e-mail, instant messaging and online chats. "I believe my deafness becomes a non-issue when dealing with people who expect only my best effort," he says.


Tara Swords is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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