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Akron's kinship with deaf workers hits a rough spot
Factories lost haven for many

Erika D. Smith
Akron Beacon Journal © 2003
December 8, 2003

Akron and the Deaf are old friends. The kind of pals that paired up out of convenience.

In the not so distant past, Akron was the place to go for jobs. It was early in the 20th century and the rubber capital of the world was cranking out tires like nobody's business.

Tire making was a messy, good-paying job done in excruciatingly loud factories. It created the kind of noise that could make a hearing man go deaf, but leave an already deaf man unfazed.

It didn't take Goodyear and Firestone long to realize that. So they recruited deaf and hard-of-hearing people from all over the country.

Thousands came and stayed long after World War I and World War II ended. The result was an unusually high deaf population in Akron.

Things change, though.

John Bradley Jr., treasurer of the Ohio Association of the Deaf, shook his head and winced before explaining the current state of affairs.

``Many deaf people are working now at smaller factories, stores and fast food'' places, the deaf Munroe Falls resident wrote on a notepad. ``... But not at large factories like before.''

That's not to say there aren't deaf accountants and deaf engineers and deaf professors, but Akron and the deaf community generally drifted apart as the tire industry went flat. These days, the deaf can't rely on any one industry, and many people are unemployed or underemployed.

Job opportunities aren't what they were, even though the incentives for companies to hire Americans with disabilities are much greater today than they were 60 years ago.

Companies that hire deaf or hard-of-hearing people can take a tax deduction for a percentage of the worker's wages, plus they can get a tax credit for building modifications to accommodate such employees.

Agencies such as the Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation (BVR) exist to teach companies about those incentives and to persuade them to take a chance on disabled employees.

``We can help show an employer how reasonable accommodations can be, both in terms of cost and convenience,'' said Bonnie Susko, a supervisor at the agency's Akron office.

Employment hurdles

Deaf and hard-of-hearing people who want to work usually run into one of two problems, said John Sederwall, founder and former pastor of the Calvary Church of the Deaf in Akron.

First, those who manage to find a good job are likely to hit a glass ceiling. They don't advance as their hearing colleagues do, he said.

Second, those who are looking for a job sometimes don't get past the front door. It's easy for employers to assume the communication barrier would be insurmountable and that hiring a deaf person would cost too much money.

A lack of understanding and lack of communication contribute to both problems, Sederwall and others say.

The deaf and hard-of-hearing community is diverse; differences can be great regarding the cause and degree of hearing loss, the age of onset, methods of communication and feelings about their hearing loss. How people ``label'' themselves usually falls into three categories: deaf, a culture that calls itself Deaf and hard of hearing.

Generally, the term ``deaf'' refers to those who are unable to hear well enough to rely on their hearing and use it as a means of processing information.

The uppercase Deaf refers to a particular group of deaf people who share a language -- American Sign Language -- and a culture. The members of this group use sign language as a primary means of communication among themselves, and hold a set of beliefs about themselves and their connection to society.

The term ``hard of hearing'' refers to those who have some hearing, are able to use it for communication purposes, and who feel reasonably comfortable doing so. Some who are hard of hearing identify with the Deaf community, others do not.

All three groups, which make up about 28 million people nationwide, are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA bans discrimination and requires companies to make reasonable accommodations for such employees.

Susko said some companies are more willing than others to hire someone with a disability. Usually, all it takes is for an employer to do it once, and they'll never again be reluctant.

For first-timers, the BVR offers a number of free familiarization and sensitivity training programs. Plus, once a deaf person is placed in a company, the agency follows his progress for three months.

``We just don't place somebody and walk away,'' she said.

Office communication

Susko said the assumptions some companies make about hiring the deaf and hard of hearing are often wrong.

With advances in technology, communication between the deaf and the hearing has become much easier in the workplace. Computers are everywhere, so the deaf can use intraoffice instant messaging or e-mail to talk with their colleagues.

Using the telephone can be more difficult, but with a TTY system, the deaf can take part in a live call through the Ohio Relay Service. The free service provides an operator to translate TTY text messages from a deaf person into speech for a hearing person, and back again.

``It's slower, but they can have a live conversation,'' Susko said.

Video conferences also can work to a deaf person's advantage if the meeting has closed captions or an interpreter translates the words into sign language.

The latter is a sticking point with many companies, though. Interpreters aren't cheap -- $40 to $60 for two hours -- and Susko isn't aware of any government funds to help.

Sederwall, who works as a free-lance interpreter, said the service is costly because the skill is highly specialized.

The BVR and other local agencies, such as Family Services, can provide interpreters to companies, too. But Sederwall said that route can be more expensive.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, some smaller companies can legally avoid hiring an interpreter because the cost would cause ``undue hardship.'' That's the exception to the reasonable-accommodation rule under the ADA.

However, the National Association of the Deaf still considers hiring an interpreter reasonable for companies that can afford it. It also says employers should provide:

•  Telecommunication devices (TTYs)

•  Amplified telephones

•  Assistive listening systems

•  Flashing lights on smoke alarms and equipment

•  Televisions equipped with decoding capability to display closed captions on televised or videotaped information shown to employees

Government aid is available for most of these products.

Looking ahead

Bradley says he's hopeful things will turnaround for the deaf community in Akron. But it's clear the days of noisy tire factories are gone.

Since the 1970s, many people slowly moved on to better job markets in others cities and states.

Bradley, who had a deaf father and two deaf uncles who worked for Goodyear, said the area doesn't have much to offer anymore. Only the University of Akron and Kent State, where he teaches part time, are known havens for the deaf.

``Cleveland and Columbus, many deaf work there. But in Akron, (there are) not great jobs available for deaf,'' he wrote.

For more information, contact these agencies: The Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation , 330-643-3080, voice; 330-643-3090, TTY; or The National Association of the Deaf - 301-587-1788, voice; 301-587-1789, TTY;



Help Kids Hear is a site dedicated to helping parents of deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) children. We are parents of hard of hearing kids and simply want to "give back" to the community. We welcome your comments, questions & suggestions. Please drop us a note at