By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Oct. 21, 2010) -- Across the Army, about 280 civilian employees are deaf while another 2,100 are hard of hearing, and the Army is providing new technology to ensure they can do their jobs.
A seminar for Pentagon employees Tuesday as part of Disability Employment Awareness Month discussed adaptive technology and challenges facing deaf employees.
"Traditionally, the federal government has been a massive supporter of hiring people with disabilities, and the Army has exemplified that," said Barbara Stansbury, deputy director of the Army's Equal Employment Opportunity Office.
By making available interpreters or adaptive technology, she said the Army ensures deaf employees can bring their valuable skills to the table the same as their hearing counterparts.
Such technology includes video phones, for instance, that allow deaf employees to make phone calls using only sign language. Another piece of technology is the "UbiDuo," system, which consists of two keyboard and screen devices, similar to laptops, that allow a deaf and hearing employee to sit face-to-face and carry on a conversation.
"Deaf people are individuals who can function and do function as well as anybody else," Stansbury said. "There is a large set of skills in the deaf community that could easily be utilized with the technology today. There are graphic designers, photographers or budget analysts -- there's a wealth of deaf people out there with skills that the Army needs."
Meredith Filiatreault is a sign-language interpreter with the Army's EEO office in Washington. She provides language services to about 15 deaf professionals that serve headquarters Army. Her work takes her to office meetings, awards ceremonies and even office social functions.
"It is important that we are able to provide that accommodation for the deaf individuals, so they have access to what is going on in office meetings, or what is going on with coworkers," she said. "I wish I was able to get an interpreter for every deaf person, but that is not possible."
She said in lieu of an interpreter, the Army can now provide for deaf employees technology that makes it easier for them to communicate with their coworkers.
Filiatreault provided the seminar for Pentagon employees to familiarize them with what the Army does for deaf employees, challenges deaf employees face in the workplace, and how they can better work with their deaf coworkers.
"The course was motivated to provide some additional background to the offices that have deaf employees in them," she said.
During the two-hour seminar, Filiatreault exposed attendees to some basic sign language and some concepts regarding Deaf culture. She also explained that anyone unable to hear is "deaf" -- but that some of those who are unable to hear, who are "deaf," choose also to be "Deaf" -- with a capital "D." That second word has a cultural connotation, she said, indicating a self-identified cultural connection with a larger community of Deaf individuals.
While the Army does a good job of accommodating deaf employees, Stansbury said the Army needs to broaden its focus on adaptive communications. An aging workforce means more employees are experiencing hearing loss. Additionally, she said, Soldiers are coming home from theater with hearing loss.
"I'm seeing more and more military wearing hearing aids," she said. "With the number of Soldiers coming back from theater -- a significant number of which have already been recognized as having hearing loss -- our focus needs to be broader. So the whole concept of adapting the way we are accustomed to communicating to a more inclusive way of communicating is not only going to benefit deaf employees, but it is going to benefit a lot of hard-of-hearing older people as well."