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October 27, 2004

Deaf help Kodak relate

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Rochester,NY,USA - Oct 27, 2004

NTID role-playing exercise bridges two worlds

Ben Rand
Staff writer

(October 27, 2004) — Under normal circumstances, George Ealy wouldn't have any problems tapping into his bank account for a $20 withdrawal. But on Tuesday afternoon, the rules were a little different for the normally routine transaction.

Ealy, a systems administrator at Eastman Kodak Co., was participating in "It's a Deaf, Deaf World," a role-playing exercise designed to simulate some of the problems experienced by people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Members of Rochester's deaf community played roles such as bank tellers, travel agents and hotel clerks. Their pretend clients, Ealy and roughly 60 other Kodak employees, were not allowed to speak while interacting with the professionals but could use gestures or write notes.

So when Ealy, 46, sat down across "bank teller" Dottie Cerniglia of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, he quickly learned just how hard the deaf have it in a hearing world.

His communication with Cerniglia started off all right, but quickly got bogged down in confusing signals and gestures. Cerniglia, a staff assistant in NTID's learning center, seemed to want Ealy to fill out a withdrawal slip, but never provided one. Ealy left scratching his head.

"Limited" is how he described his abilities to communicate after visiting a simulated travel agency, restaurant, hospital, hotel and employment office in addition to the bank.

"I could only go so far in my communication," Ealy said. "I found out it was critical that we learn how to communicate in this way." He said it became especially acute to him as he tried to tell a role-playing deaf hospital clerk that he'd hurt his shoulder in a car accident.

Ealy used a wide variety of techniques. At the travel agency, he waved his arms right and left to express his desire to fly to Hawaii (as if he was doing a Hula dance.) At the restaurant, he patted his stomach to tell the waitress he was full. At the employment office, he wrote notes to ask for a higher starting salary.

"I learned that I may have taken some things for granted," Ealy said.

Kodak asked NTID to put on the program to make that very point. The exercise is part of the company's push to do a better job recruiting, rewarding and retaining workers of diverse backgrounds, said Gary P. Van Graafeiland, Kodak's senior vice president and general counsel.

Van Graafeiland, who wears hearing aids and describes himself as "half deaf," is the executive champion for the Kodak employee group for people with disabilities.

Deaf people "have a reservoir of talents and desires. We can use those talents. It's no different than any other Kodak employee," Van Graafeiland told employees before the exercise began. "We want all employees to be given an environment that allows them to contribute to the fullest."

It was the first time NTID had conducted the role-playing exercise at Kodak or any other company, said Barbara Ray Holcomb, an instructor of American Sign Language at NTID, which is part of the Rochester Institute of Technology. The school has taken the exercise to schools, hospitals and other nonprofits a number of times.

Kodak deserves praise for exposing employees to the struggles of the deaf, Holcomb said. "It will be an eye-opener for the community," she said. "It shows they (Kodak) care about us."

The idea of the exercise is to teach empathy and "to remove the myth that all deaf people use sign language and that they are handicapped," Holcomb said.

Employees seemed to have gotten the message. Reactions afterward ranged from Ealy's "limited" to "frustrated," "powerless" and "very anxious" to "I didn't have a clue."

Copyright 2004 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.