Embracing the Power and Value of Deaf Talent for More Inclusive Workplaces

When it comes to equality, CEOs and leaders need to step up.

Halfpoint Images/ Getty Images
Halfpoint Images/ Getty Images

Please watch below for a video interpreting this article in American Sign Language:

In 2015, I was honored and proud to be named CEO of ZP, a company that provides an array of leading technology solutions for the more than 30 million deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States. Our services, such as video relay service, help deliver on a person’s fundamental right to equal communications with business associates, government agencies, schools, and loved ones.  The services and technologies we provide strive to enable equal access for the deaf community in their own language: American Sign Language.

While I brought more than 25 years tech expertise with me to ZP, I was keenly aware of the steep learning curve I had, and would continue to have, as a hearing executive of a company serving individuals who are deaf. Guided each and every day by ZP’s deaf and hard of hearing employees, I soon realized how little I knew about the deaf community and the issues it faces. I also quickly realized that creating a more inclusive workplace cannot happen without daily CEO accountability.  

Nothing, though, could have prepared me for the shock of learning about the decades-long, profound employment gap faced by deaf and hard of hearing individuals. I am told time and time again by so many within the deaf community that little to nothing has changed on this over the past 30 years. The global pandemic has not helped.

In 1988, the employment rate for people with disabilities, which includes deaf individuals, was 50 percent. By 2014 it declined to 22 percent and again declined to 17.9 percent in 2020. Comparatively, 61.8 percent of people without disabilities were employed in 2020, more than three times the rate for those with disabilities. Consider underemployment and those sidelined entirely from the workforce and it is clear that the deaf employment gap runs wide and deep.  Employment rates for deaf people did not increase from 2008 and 2017 and they are missing from the labor force at more than twice the rate of hearing people. 

The harsh big picture reality today — more than 31 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act — is that deaf talent is not meaningfully welcomed in the nation’s workforce.  Career and life inequities are perpetuated for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, not remedied.

It also is crystal clear to me that CEOs, more than anyone, have a responsibility to step up and right this. Too many organizations and their top leaders don’t see what I have the privilege to see each day in my office — the power and value of deaf talent.  I am proud to say that we have grown our deaf employee base to 73 percent today from 49 percent in 2017. I am equally proud that for two consecutive years our company was named a “Best Places to Work for Disability Inclusion.” I know firsthand the power and value of deaf and diverse talent but I also know that my work, our work, is far from finished.  I call on any chief executive reading this to join me in helping to break the incomprehensible cycle of employment stagnation for deaf workers.  

Hiring deaf and disabled workers is the right thing to do, of course, and it also is good for your bottom line.  A 2018 Accenture report, Getting to Equal, found that companies that offered inclusive working environments for employees with disabilities achieved an average of 28 percent higher revenue, 30 percent greater economic profit margins and double the net income of their industry peers. Deaf and hard of hearing consumers are part of the third largest market segment in the United States with discretionary income estimated at $9 billion. Who better to tap this sizable potential customer market and spending power for brands and businesses than deaf employees?  According to Disability IN, if CEOs hired just one percent of the untapped talent with disabilities, which includes deaf workers, we could boost the American GDP by up to $25 billion. 

Deaf individuals today work in every field imaginable. Because of their own life experiences, they are often more adaptable and have exceptional problem solving and interpersonal skills. Studies also show that people with disabilities have less absenteeism, and the companies that employ them have higher retention rates.  Accommodation costs are exponentially lower than most business leaders expect, often $500 or less.  We work with some of the country’s leading companies and governmental agencies, such as Amazon and Boeing, to ensure they have the right technology that enables deaf workers to thrive and contribute.

In 2018, I gladly signed on to CEO Action, the largest CEO driven business commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  Last year, I also committed to Disability IN’s Are You In?, a similar CEO-driven campaign. Both initiatives have been instrumental in raising awareness about making the nation’s workplaces more inclusive. 

Sadly, though, less than 2,100 CEOs combined have committed to these pledges to date.  More CEOs need to stand up.  We need a more unified and intentional commitment from the very group of leaders — CEOs — who can have the greatest and swiftest impact for one of the most marginalized, untapped and yet financially valuable labor forces in the United States.

The power and value of deaf talent are undeniable. I’m in, are you?

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