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Sounds of silence: Deaf employees succeed in workforce

Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier
By STACEY PALEVSKY, Courier Staff Writer

LA PORTE CITY ---Her jokes evoke laughter she cannot hear.

Still, that doesn't deter Donna Zeien from grinning at nursing home residents or teasing about their latest knitting project or large-print novel --- all of which she does without speaking.

Zeien, 30, has been deaf since contracting meningitis at age 2. For three years, she has exceeded her responsibilities as a housekeeper at La Porte City Nursing & Rehab Center. She cleans linens and sweeps the floor, but she also gets residents ice water and waters their plants.

She relies on intuition and compassion to tend to residents' needs.

"It was the first time they ever hired a deaf person," Zeien says.

Rapid advancement in technology and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 --- which served as civil rights legislation for people with disabilities --- expanded workplace access and employment possibilities for the deaf.

Minorities in a hearing world, however, Black Hawk County residents who are deaf still confront hurdles.

The challenge starts with the first step in the hiring process. Employers may resist conducting job interviews, where the ability to communicate is fundamental. The communication gap also applies to other areas, including training, and may require special accommodations within the workplace.

"It's hidden, but when you try to interact with someone who is deaf, you've got the disability, too," says Lee Ann Russo of Vocational Rehabilitation Services. "It can make employers uncomfortable in a situation where (they) can't communicate."

Zeien, who received vocational rehabilitation support in her job search, heard doubts from several potential employers in the past, who worried she couldn't use the phone or interact with customers or coworkers.

"It's my opinion, then, that we should find a way so these obstacles can be overcome," Zeien says. "With (teleprinters), pen and paper, a personal laptop --- there are ways around it."

Accommodating demands

Zeien's employer found a way around these obstacles with assistance from Communication Service for the Deaf.

Pam Tallman, Zeien's boss, wanted to ensure Zeien would be working in a safe environment. Tallman supplied Zeien with a vibrating beeper with specific codes to alert her to emergencies or notify her when she is needed at the front desk or laundry room. A visual alert system --- flashing lights --- was installed to complement the auditory fire alarm.

"I thought it wonderful they showed concern for a deaf individual by providing that," Zeien says.

Coworkers also have taken steps on their own to improve communication. Some registered for a basic American sign language night class at Hawkeye Community College; others signed up for weekly sign language workshops at the nursing home provided by Communication Service.

"It was up to us to go beyond our comfort level and learn something new," Tallman says.

Lynna Even, one of Zeien's coworkers, knew some sign language before the two met, but she took classes to brush up her skills.

As the women walk down the nursing home hallway, Zeien pauses, taps Even's shoulder and begins to sign.

Even stops to face her. The desire to communicate prompts Even to dig deep in the recesses of her mind to remember what her coworker's nimble hands articulate.

Zeien also reads lips, so Even can verbalize which resident's room they will tend next. Still, some confusion can develop since different words can result from the same mouth movements.

"We know how to communicate, I just sometimes need to feel her out," Even says.

Animated body language is another important component of communication between Zeien and her colleagues. When that fails, they write messages --- Zeien is always armed with a small notepad and pen.

Comfort level

Anthony Holmes, 37, was born deaf. He works in the shipping and packing department at Family Dollar in Waterloo.

The rapport between Holmes and his coworkers is comfortable and comical. Though they haven't enrolled in formal sign language classes, that hasn't proved an obstacle to communication.

Holmes taught his colleagues a few basic signs. Following his sense of humor, his lessons included some words that aren't exactly fit to print.

Few accommodations were needed to hire Holmes.

"He's the hardest worker I have," boss Michael Welch says. "He doesn't get distracted."

When Welch hired Holmes last year, though, his assistant manager threatened to quit.

"He applied, and I thought why not? I did have a few reservations ... ," Welch says.

The assistant manager stayed and the language barrier has since been broken. During a lull in the unloading process, Holmes casually gives a coworker a wet willy. The man jerks away and grins at Holmes, who tries not to laugh too loudly.

A colleague taps him on the shoulder and motions to the truck. Holmes, still stifling laughter, continues unloading the shipment.

"Hearing people think it's much more limited, but deaf people can do anything. It's very equal," Holmes says later.

Landing the job

For the deaf, earning the trust of potential employers is a difficult first step.

When Christy Mason moved to the U.S. from Cambodia, she needed to learn English and American sign language. After nine years in America, she is still working to improve her vocabulary.

Mason found a job in the Courier's pressroom --- with Communication Service's help --- after a one-year search.

"Sometimes I was treated differently. I'd have interviews, and then I'd hear nothing," Mason says. "I think some (employers) saw I was deaf and would throw away my application."

Mason, 36, was surprised when she was called for in for an interview at the newspaper. A Communication Service interpreter accompanied her.

Communication Service is a nonprofit organization based in Cedar Rapids that supports businesses who hire individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. The organization helped La Porte City Nursing and Rehab Center pay for and install its visual alert system. The organization also helps deaf and hard of hearing Iowans find employment and training.

While Mason gets along without an interpreter from day to day, Communication Service still helps by providing an interpreter for staff meetings and other situations.

Mason's job is labor-intensive, and at first the repetition of feeding paper into a machine produced blisters on her hands. They have since callused, but she is careful because she depends on her hands to communicate.

Mason's struggle to learn English has given her new perspective on hearing individuals' attempts to learn sign language.

"Don't give up on communication," Mason says. "Go ahead and talk with the deaf. Use paper and pencil if necessary."

Caryn Gray of Communication Service for the Deaf has worked with numerous businesses that were initially hesitant to hire a deaf employee. She attributes the unwillingness to a lack of knowledge.

For instance, she says, some companies maintain the ability to use a telephone is an absolute job qualification. They are unaware, she says, of technological support available for the deaf.

Alternatives include adding a telephone text (TTY) system or providing real-time captioning on an as-needed basis for television or video conferencing.

Russo says decades ago, deaf adults depended on their children to call the plumber or order a pizza. Today, TTY and relay phone services have opened new possibilities --- in the workplace and the home.

While many businesses welcome employees with disabilities, just as many are unwilling to consider a deaf employee --- even after learning about the availability of technology and aids.

"They'll just say no, flat out," Gray says.

"There is discrimination out there, but it's nothing provable. Companies are really good about hiding discriminating against someone because they're deaf," she says. "But then we have companies who have hired five of our deaf people."

Holmes and Mason have held their jobs for a year. Zeien has been with the nursing home for three. She was named employee of the month in October 2002.

Though at first their deafness defined them, today coworkers see a person, not a deficiency.

Not being able to talk to the residents hasn't inhibited Zeien.

"She enhances (their) lives and is a good team player," Tallman says.

Zeien looks forward to the day when people accept the challenge of working with people who are deaf.

"We're all the same. We're all humans," she says.

"I am convinced the deaf can do anything, if the hearing can give us a chance."


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