RIT/NTID Promotes ‘Working Together’ for Deaf and Hearing Co-Workers

Mark Pfuntner and Shyrl Scalice from NTID discuss communication preferences at The Dow Chemical Co. near Philadelphia.

When RIT/NTID students Melody Frink and Mary Sporman landed summer co-ops as laboratory technicians at The Dow Chemical Company research site in Spring House, Pa., this summer, they were thrilled about gaining real-world work experience, but also a bit nervous moving to a new area where they didn’t know anyone.

The nervousness was not just on their part. When their Dow colleagues learned their summer hires were both deaf, some were unsure how they could communicate with them or what safety measures needed to be in place.

Mark Pfuntner, an associate professor with NTID’s Business Studies Department, and Shyrl Scalice, a senior employment advisor with the NTID Center on Employment soon visited Dow to present a “Working Together” workshop for nearly 30 employees who would be working with Frink and Sporman. The college has provided these workshops for more than 25 years to assist in the workplace for both the students and employees.

“We find that employers hiring our students for the first time may have questions regarding communication or accommodation issues,” said John Macko, the director of NCE. “As part of our workshop, we explain that not every deaf person communicates the same way, and we offer suggestions to enhance communication and answer questions employers may have. It’s a win-win situation, benefitting the employers, our student workers and other deaf or hard-of-hearing workers who may be hired in the future.”

Although deaf people have varying communication styles, Pfuntner and Scalice said communicating with a deaf co-worker is easy, thanks to technological advances such as instant messaging, texting or even video phone relay calls. And there’s always the standby paper and pencil if something needs to be jotted down for clarification.

During the workshop, the students talked about themselves and their communication preferences. Frink, of Columbus, Ohio, is one of 11 deaf children of deaf parents. She explained what she can and cannot hear with her hearing aids. “I hear talking, but I don’t discriminate words,” she said.

And Sporman, of Bay City, Mich., shared her decision not to use her voice or the cochlear implant she received when she was a child. “There was a lot of pressure to use my voice, but it just was not effective for me,” she said using sign language voiced by an interpreter.

“This really is the ideal situation, to be here when students are just starting their co-ops, so they can be part of the program and answer questions their coworkers may have,” Scalice said. “And we are thrilled that The Dow Chemical Company has made the commitment and partnered with us. The fact that Dow invited us here really says a lot about the organization.”

Scott Wills, a research scientist at Dow, was looking forward to learning more about communicating with the students. “We really are hoping to get information that will make everyone feel comfortable working with deaf and hard-of-hearing people, so we can make sure the students feel comfortable in this environment and become more productive,” he said.

“The more interaction with deaf employees you have, the more comfortable you feel,” Scalice said. “And it’s both parties’ responsibility to make communication work.”

Pfuntner, who was diagnosed deaf at age 4, and Scalice, who is hearing, talked a bit about the two types of deafness, caused by conductive problems or nerve damage. Then the employees participated in an audio exercise, where sound frequencies were removed, making some sounds of speech inaudible and comprehension doubtful. Several of the participants said the audio sounded muffled, or needed to be turned up.

“Think about your frustration,” Pfuntner said. “This is what deaf people go through every day. We really have to focus on communication. At night, I’m tired.”

Pfuntner was asked whether it would help if they slowed down their speech when talking with a deaf person.

“We ask you to speak normally,” he said. “But some people speak really fast, and if you are one of them, you can slow down a bit.”

Pfuntner explained that the term “hearing impaired” is frowned upon in the deaf community. “We don’t like that word, ‘impaired,’ because it means we can’t do it,” he said. The terms “deaf” and “hard of hearing” generally are preferred.

And he said not to assume all deaf people can read lips. Even those who appear to read lips well can only understand about 30 percent of speech that is readable on the lips.

“It’s not as easy as you might think,” Pfuntner said. “Don’t jump to the conclusion they are going to understand everything you’re going to say. It’s just another tool they’ll be adding to their toolbox to be able to communicate with you.”

He also explained that deaf people rely on their vision to receive information. Even hearing aids or cochlear implants don’t change a deaf person into a hearing person. They may improve loudness of noises, but not clarity.

Dow employees said they appreciated a brochure given to them during the workshop with the finger spelling alphabet and some basic signs. They also received advice about what to do when they see Frink or Sporman in the hall: it’s fine to tap them on the shoulder to get their attention, or wave and smile to say hello. And if two people are conversing in sign language, it is fine to simply walk between them instead of excusing yourself or going around. That’s better than breaking their eye contact by excusing yourself.

“I prefer people to just be themselves,” Frink said.

“If you have questions, the students are your best resources. Ask them,” Pfuntner said. “And keep them in the loop with the things you talk about at the water cooler. So if you hear a juicy rumor or some gossip, let them know. They will love you for that.”

Employees said the workshop was “awesome,” “eye-opening,” and that they learned a lot, including that deaf people can have different communication styles. One participant also said it helped them empathize with their new coworkers.

Janine Vanluvanee, a scientist who will be working closely with Frink, was excited about Frink’s arrival. She knew some basic finger spelling years ago, and hoped Frink would help her learn more signing.

“I learned about deaf culture in the workshop – that was important,” Vanluvanee said. “Melody can talk and sign at the same time, and I can understand her. And when I talk to her, I can point or fingerspell and by knowing the context, we’re able to communicate just fine.”

The NTID Center on Employment’s website offers tips to prospective employers on how to interview and integrate deaf and hard-of-hearing employees to the workplace. To request a workshop, visit the NCE online or call (585) 475-6219.

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