How My Computer Has Helped Me Overcome Hearing Loss to a Great Extent
By Ted Hart, development lead for the Natural Language Group at Microsoft Corporation
The subject of diversity, part of which is accommodation for people with disabilities, has received considerable attention at Microsoft in the last year. Upper management has cited this as a core company value, with a goal of being the diversity leader in the high-tech industry. Of course, the true test of a corporate policy is how it percolates down to the level of everyday implementation by individual employees. In the nine years that I've worked here, I've had occasion to witness many employees incorporating diversity awareness and accommodation into their day-to-day jobs. I have a disability—one which is not immediately apparent until you try to talk to me. I've been completely deaf since a bout with the mumps at age 13. Although I have an advantage over many deaf people in my ability to speak, I cannot lip read very well, and even a recent cochlear implant has not significantly helped.
So for me, the biggest challenge is communicating with my co-workers. My computer is a great tool, but obviously not all communication can occur on the computer. In this article, I'll talk about my experiences and what has helped to make up for the things I can't hear.
Using my computer to communicate
E-mail, of course, is a great equalizer: On e-mail, nobody knows you're deaf.
For many people with physical disabilities, computers provide an opportunity for learning and communication that is not available in other ways. This is especially true for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, because everything can be displayed visually. Tools that I use daily include:
E-mail. E-mail, of course, is a great equalizer: On e-mail, nobody knows you're deaf. This is the tool I use most frequently.
MSN Instant Messaging. Instant Messaging has also become a very useful tool for me, helping provide some of the "real-time" communication that hearing people get from the telephone.
Text telephone. Microsoft supplies me with a text telephone, which is a phone that displays what the caller says on a little screen. It can be used either by another text telephone, or by someone calling a state relay service, where a person translates the caller's words into typing on the screen. Although this doesn't technically involve my computer, I thought it worth mentioning because being able to get and make phone calls in this way certainly makes my life much easier.
One tool I have not tried yet is the chat feature in NetMeeting. It allows co-workers to take part in a virtual meeting and send text messages to one another in real time. For more information, see Microsoft NetMeeting and the Role of Internet Conferencing for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Users.
All of these tools work well for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing because they exchange information in a visual way. But sometimes software has features that are not displayed visually. As the capabilities of computers have increased, sound has become an important part of human-computer interaction. As a deaf person, this is a mixed blessing. On one hand, this is good because speech recognition is becoming more powerful. On the other hand, a number of programs now incorporate audible features such as music or dialog, often with no accompanying visual representation.
This is an area in which Microsoft has taken the lead in accommodating its deaf and hard-of-hearing customers. Bill Graham, managing editor of Encarta, is deaf. Thanks to his efforts and Microsoft's support, Encarta now includes closed captioning whenever sound is part of the presentation.
Participating in meetingsMy computer helps me overcome my hearing loss to a great extent, but we all know how much meetings are an inescapable part of our jobs. The importance of face-to-face communication hasn't diminished.
Microsoft provides a sign language interpreter for my use in meetings. Essentially this allows me to "hear" what is being discussed, whether with a large group in a meeting room, or with one or two other people in an office or lounge.
I've used the same interpreter, Bernie Taylor, since high school. This stability makes it much easier on me, because there are different styles of sign language. There is American Sign Language (ASL), which has its own syntax and structure. Pidgin Signed English (PSE) derives its name from the fact that it is more English-structured, but without some of the syntactic details that are time-consuming to sign. PSE is the dialect that I am most comfortable with. In addition, every sign language interpreter has her own signing "accent," and I am very accustomed to Bernie's style. This reduces the overhead of translating back from signs into the English that was spoken, although it is still a tiring effort.
We schedule Bernie for Monday and Wednesday mornings, so my group can schedule my meetings for a time we know she'll be available. This is an important consideration, because it is often difficult to get interpreters on less than 48 hours notice.
If I ever need to attend a meeting without an interpreter, there is an external company, RapidText, that will hook up to the meeting via NetMeeting and provide real-time captioning. I haven't needed to use this yet, but it's nice to know there are options.
Whether it's triaging bugs, designing new features, tracking status, or working with other groups, being able to "hear" what is happening in meetings both large and small has been an indispensable part of making my products successful.
You don't have to become an expert signer to make yourself understood.
How team members can help
To accommodate a deaf or hard-of-hearing person in a meeting, keep the following points in mind:
Determine how the person communicates. If sign language is required, request a sign language interpreter.
If possible, distribute meeting notes beforehand. This helps clarify terms, acronyms, and the subjects to be discussed.
In the meeting, only one person should speak at a time, and background noise should be minimized.
If the deaf or hard-of-hearing person is using lip reading, the speaker should face him. He may also rely on facial expressions and other body language to help understand. The speaker should keep things (hands, food, etc.) from obstructing the view of her mouth when speaking.
If a sign language interpreter is used, the interpreter must be in line of sight with any visual presentations.
When you are speaking, remember to maintain eye contact with the deaf or heard-of-hearing person, not the interpreter.
If sign language or lip reading is used, be sure there is adequate lighting.
Signing with my co-workers
For [some], being able to sign isn't just a means of implementing corporate policy. It adds value to their lives, both at and outside of work.
Successful communication with co-workers can't always happen over a computer or through an interpreter. A simple (not to mention fun) accommodation strategy is to learn sign language. You don't have to become an expert signer to make yourself understood. Simply learning to do the alphabet at a good pace means you can say just about anything you want. Plus, it gives you something to practice while you're stuck in traffic! Corporate Diversity is currently sponsoring a beginning American Sign Language class for all Microsoft employees.
Both the groups I have worked in at Microsoft have had Bernie teach a sign language class. A number of my co-workers have developed enough fluency to carry on a conversation (although at a somewhat slower pace than speech). We use sign language to talk about work issues as well as to have social conversations. Hallway chats, discussions over coffee, and going out for lunch are very frustrating when you can't take part in the conversations. When the people on your team can sign, these conversations become an enjoyable and satisfying part of the day.
On several occasions, people from my work groups have told me about meeting a deaf person and how "cool" it felt for them to be able to sign to them. For them, being able to sign isn't just a means of implementing corporate policy on accommodation. It's something that adds value to their lives, both at and outside of work.
So how are we doing?
As far as the corporate policy on diversity goes, I think we are doing great. The effort to accommodate disabilities—both on the part of Microsoft and its individual employees—has been key to my success here and has made "making Microsoft a great place to work" far more than a simple catch phrase. And I'm not the only winner: building diversity into my teams has helped me, my co-workers, and Microsoft's products.
Diversity at Microsoft
Resource Guide for People with Hearing Impairmentshttp://www.microsoft.com/enable/news/tedhart.aspx