Deaf Discrimination: RIT/NTID Students Appear on ABC’s “What Would You Do?” Program

RIT/NTID students Hannah Worek (left) and Maya Ariel speak with “What Would You Do?” host John Quiñones.

What happened when deaf students recently applying for a job at a coffee shop were met with these comments:

  • “We don’t hire deaf people here.”
  • “I’m sure you can do lots of things. But this is not the job for you.”
  • “The next time you come in here, bring an interpreter.”
  • “I think you people would rather work with people of your own kind.”

Did anyone witnessing the discrimination speak up?

That was the experiment students from Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf conducted with ABC’s “What Would You Do?” program. The show uses hidden cameras to depict actors doing controversial things such as breaking into cars or obviously stealing a bicycle, and records what passersby do – or don’t do – when confronted with an ethical dilemma.

“We’re not out to embarrass anyone,” said host John Quiñones. “It’s a lesson learned by the viewers at home, to speak up when they see an injustice.”

The 8-minute segment aired nationally Feb. 4 on ABC.

Andrew Paparella, a producer for the show, sought suggestions from deaf students, faculty and staff from RIT/NTID to see whether a situation where deaf people were being discriminated against would cause people to speak up. He flew to Rochester in December and met with several students involved in the theater program at NTID. The students talked about what it was like being deaf and challenges they encountered at home finding jobs. They also showed him there’s not one way of being deaf or hard of hearing. Some used their voices; others used their hands to communicate in American Sign Language.

Paparella also interviewed NTID President Gerard Buckley, who talked about NTID’s Center on Employment, which educates prospective employers of deaf workers nationwide about how little accommodations may be needed to hire a deaf employee.

After the meeting in Rochester, ABC hired RIT/NTID students Hannah Worek and Maya Ariel to be actors for the production. The network flew them to Newark, N.J., and gave them a hotel room in nearby Morristown, where they would be pretending to apply for a job opening at a small coffee shop.

An hour before SmartWorld Coffee opened at 7 a.m., Hannah and Maya were among 30 ABC employees crowded in the store. Technicians placed eight hidden cameras in the shop and attached portable microphones to the actors – Hannah and Maya, and two actors who were playing the role of the discriminating manager. A truck with numerous monitors was parked in a rear lot. Crew members camped in the basement of the store as they watched more monitors and checked sound levels. Others – including an undercover police officer, just in case – were posing as customers sitting in the store. And more people were outside in vans waiting with cameras and microphones to approach actual customers who were filmed and may be shown on the show. Each actual customer had to fill out releases after they were told this was a staged scenario. If they didn’t fill out a release, their faces would be blurred out or they wouldn’t be used.

A large “help wanted” sign was placed on the door of the store and another at the counter. When the store filled with actual customers, Maya and Hannah walked in and asked the manager – actor Vince August - for a job application.

“You know what, I’m not going to hire a deaf person, I’ll let you know right now,” he said. “I’m not going to waste your time.”

Actual customers overhearing this rolled their eyes and turned around, but no one said anything until the girls left. Then one woman told August she works in human resources, and he shouldn’t have been specific why he wouldn’t hire them. “You don’t have to hire her, but you need to be careful how you communicate that,” she said. “This is a very litigious society.”

As the day progressed, the actors became more brazen with their discrimination:

  • “Go ahead and fill out the application. I’m going to write ‘DEAF’ across the top of it.”
  • “Isn’t there another place you’d feel more comfortable working? I think you’d be more comfortable someplace else.”
  • “I’m trying to run a business, and that type of impairment would be a nuisance.”
  • “It would make things uncomfortable for our customers.”
  • “Is there a deaf school around? Maybe you should find a job there.”

Few customers reacted other than turning their heads or muttering as they walked out the door.

Only three customers throughout the day spoke out when the girls were in the store. One woman said the manager was being rude. A man told the girls, “You really don’t want to work here anyway” before storming out with his coffee. Customer Gerry Tourgee said: “I’m really shocked. And if that’s the case, I’m not buying my coffee here. It’s an affront. It’s an affront to America.”

Some customers were confronted by Quiñones about why they didn’t speak up.

“All right. You caught me,” one woman said.

Diana Henry, who portrayed a manager, said she was surprised more people didn’t speak up to defend the girls, “who are struggling so hard to find a voice as it is. I’m a little saddened that it didn’t happen today.”

Paparella was pleased, however.

“I thought the shoot went really well,” he said. “Maya and Hannah exceeded my expectations. They were great. It was really interesting to see the customers’ reactions. I was just really surprised more people didn’t find it outrageous. Either they didn’t take notice of our discrimination, or if they did, they didn’t seem to care.

The students agreed and have hopes attitudes will change as a result of the show.

“Look at all people as the same,” Ariel said. “Don’t focus on the differences. Focus on the fact that everyone is equal.”

“I think they should just know that deaf people can do anything pretty much. And don’t be afraid to speak up when you think something’s wrong,” Worek said.

See a captioned behind-the-scenes video of the production.

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