Making Money…at Our Expense

This article originally appeared at i711.com.

If there’s one thing that bugs me, it’s when companies that become successful by selling to the deaf community don’t support the community. By that, I mean when they don’t hire deaf people, sponsor deaf events, donate to deaf organizations, or try to become involved in the community somehow.

Back in high school, there was a local business that specialized in visual alert systems, TTYs, and so on. The owner, a hearing woman, was upset when she learned her son and I “liked” each other. I initially had no idea of the son’s ties to this company; I simply knew he was a guy from my gym class. His mother told him not to date a deaf girl, and she was cold toward me the two times I came to their house.

Anyway, this business was notorious for hiring deaf employees then firing them for whatever convenient reason. Mind you, the employees weren’t “problem employees” – they were high-caliber, extremely qualified folks. The owner just didn’t like them, probably because she couldn’t sign very well, and because the deaf employees had a better standing in the deaf community.

The business quickly gained a reputation for being “anti-deaf.” My stepdad told me of how he stopped by once to pick up a phone signaler. He walked in, and none of the employees could communicate with him. At this point, the employees were all hearing, unless you count the owner’s husband who became deaf later in life. My stepdad never went back; I didn’t, either. The company received hefty recognition from local businesses inspired by how the company “helped deaf people have a chance at life.” Still, area deaf folks knew how hypocritical the company was.

Today the company is a huge success, thanks to a shift in focus from deaf-related products to disability-related products. And the employees? Beats me, but I’d bet none of the employees are deaf or have disabilities.

Companies like this are a dime a dozen. Business opportunists see the millions of deaf and hard of hearing Americans, and think, “Heeeey, easy money!” They come up with all sorts of strategies and schemes to sell things to us. And that’s perfectly fine; this is a capitalist nation, after all.

Yet these companies don’t hire deaf folks. Apparently we’re good enough to sell to, but not good enough to hire.

Whenever I check a vendor out, I see if the owner is deaf or at least has direct ties to the deaf community. If not, then I look at how many deaf employees are at the company. I even call and ask: “How many people do you have working for you who are deaf?” I always get a kick out of their spin-doctored responses: “Well, uh, may I ask who’s calling? I see, well…we don’t have any currently, but we make attempts to reach out to…” Et cetera.

I also check to see if the organization has sponsored events, organizations or services in the community. After all, being socially responsible business owners is a big deal nowadays. If companies work with ethnic groups, they hire ethnic individuals. They want to qualify for specific contracts or to be a ‘feel-good’ company, they hire people with disabilities. If they work with deaf people, they hire hearing people who can barely sign. Waiiiiitamin… what’s wrong with this picture?

All sarcasm aside, to be a company that’s socially responsible within the deaf community, have at least an equal number of deaf and hearing employees, or even a majority of deaf employees.

I don’t care if companies make money off us deaf folks, as long as they hire deaf employees, sponsor community events, and do as much as they can to empower us. Take from us if they must, but they gotta give back to us, too.

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