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June 21, 2006

Job hunters look for a sign

From: New Zealand Herald - New Zealand - Jun 21, 2006

By Angela McCarthy

NZ Sign Language is now New Zealand's third official language yet the stigma of deafness means deaf people still struggle to gain employment, particularly in skilled jobs.

After graduating with a graphic design degree from AUT it took Lorraine Butler six years to find a job. In February she was finally employed onto an Auckland UniServices Faculty of Education project, along with deaf colleague Hinal Keshav.

"About 80 per cent of the students I trained with gained work before me. Employers are reluctant to take deaf people on, despite our skills," says Butler through a sign language interpreter.

Even further diploma study in multi media didn't open doors, so Butler resorted to other strategies.

"I stopped putting 'deaf' on my CV. I would ask people to contact me by email or text, even to organize interviews. Only then did I explain that I would need a sign language interpreter."

This ensured Butler met potential employers face to face but it still took another three years to find work.

"I think deaf people are perceived as a cost and employers are initially paranoid about the communication issues and can't be bothered. Yet communication is easy to sort out," says Butler.

For example, flashing lights have been incorporated into the fire alarm system and strobe lights installed to alert Butler and Keshav to emergencies. Interpreters are booked in advance for regular staff meetings and project management meetings.

Costs are covered by the Mainstream programme, a two-year employment programme subsidised by the State Services.

"Employers need to realize deaf people are not retarded because they can't hear. They lip read, use pen and paper, text, email. We are part of a unique culture not based on race. My first language, New Zealand sign, is now an official language of New Zealand," signs Butler.

There are 223,500 hearing impaired in New Zealand, of which around 4,000 to 7,000 are prelingually deaf. This means they were born deaf or deafened in early childhood and can't access spoken language, explains Danz Employment consultant Lianna Kennedy, who is deaf. Danz Employment is a free employment service, set up by the Deaf Association of New Zealand two years ago, offering job training, support services for employers and employees, wage subsidy assistance and interpreting. Kennedy communicates using a telephone relay service (TTY) which involves a computer screen, remote typist and telephone.

She says deaf people are as effective as hearing workers; more so in some ways. They get through tasks more quickly and are more attentive because they're not easily distracted.

Kennedy recommends work experience to ease the way into employment for both sides. It was through work experience that Waitakere Timber owner Wayne Swann employed Johnny Hepi about three years ago. Johnny, who is profoundly deaf, is now a full time driver. Communication is in slang sign, notes and texting, explains Swann.

Through signing Johnny and Wayne laugh about early problems, like Johnny taking a load of timber to Whangarei at 2am in the morning. The biggest challenge, says Swann, is communication.

"The main thing I learned is induction programmes have to be simple. We're a small business and were relying a lot on word of mouth. Now we write everything down which is good for all of us."

Through Kennedy, Swann has now taken on a second deaf employee, Dillon Leota. Communication aside, health and safety is the other major issue for employers, says Keay Bishop, manager of Workforce Personnel, a placement agency that helps people with special needs into work and provides ongoing support.

Yet safety problems can be easily fixed and funding is available for equipment supporting deaf people at work such as flashing lights on forklifts, vibrating alarms, the telephone relay service and fax machines.

Butler's project manager Annette Holt says having to organize sign language interpreters for meetings does take away some of the spontaneity of quickly gathering the team together to sort something out. But, says Holt, there is also an important advantage.

"You become more disciplined. We plan our meetings better. It has provided a good focus and makes the whole team more productive."

Team social activities require a little more thought - movies need subtitles - and she feels Butler and Keshav sometimes miss out on incidental communication in the workplace, particularly the banter, but the team is learning the basics of sign language. In any project management, says Holt, the biggest issue is communication.

"It has actually helped our communication because we have to be clearer."

Holt employed Butler after having Keshav on the team under a short term contract.

"We were then approached by Workforce Personnel who knew about Hinal and asked if we'd be interested in employing another deaf person, Lorraine, on a longer basis through Mainstream. So we also employed Hinal again."

The Mainstream programme covers their salaries 100 per cent the first year and 50 per cent the second, as well as funding interpreters, professional development, training and induction workshops.

"It is a great service. They are always only a phone call away ready to help or explain," says Holt.

Her main advice is to ensure the job fits the person's skill set accurately and suggests passing the job description by support services.

"The job description needs to be clear about the tasks required. For example, the reading level of some deaf people can be lower because English is often their second language so report writing is not a strong skill."

Interpreters can be accessed through the Deaf Association's professional sign interpreter service for work related communication; however there is a shortage of trained and qualified interpreters. Kennedy attends meetings on behalf of her placements if required and one of Workforce Personnel's consultants, Scott Williams, is also a qualified sign interpreter which makes a big difference, says Bishop who can also sign.

However, while senior Oracle developer Stephen Leach says sign is important to him, he has played it down in his work.

"My career - and income - took off once I did. Often I do work for clients who never know I am deaf. When I was younger I made a big issue of using it at work. But I found I had built an identity as "the deaf guy" and often would get passed over for new opportunities, training and promotion because management perceived me as being a complication."

Leach is a Kiwi with a maths and physics degree from Gallaudet, an American University for the Deaf. He has worked and contracted in IT for 20 years with companies such as Air New Zealand, New Zealand Dairy Group and Telecom.

Leach is proactive to ensure communication doesn't become an issue.

"For example I schedule a net meeting or have an email conference instead of meeting a group face to face. In the rare situations when I do need assistance - an interpreter - I organise it myself rather than ask the company I am working for to do it."

While he knows he has the same knowledge, experience and skills of hearing people in his field, he accepts remuneration below that of hearing people doing the same job.

Through an email interview Leach tells me it took him eight months to get his first job. He now tends to get jobs with people he has worked with before. He has tried to find work through mainstream employment consultancies but has had no luck.

Of the four consultancies approached by the Herald, only one had ever had a deaf person on their database.


* Three training and employment funds are administered by Workbridge on behalf of the Ministry of Social Development. Assistance cannot exceed $16,900 in total.

* Modification grants, administered by Workbridge and Work and Income, can't exceed $10,000 and are available for job seekers in part time or full time employment. This grant doesn't cover sign language interpreters.

* Workbridge also provides support in employment to clients.

* Public sector employees can access the Mainstream Employment Programme.


© 2006, APN Holdings NZ Ltd