Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Disabilities, Opinion, Essay, Robert Nichols, American with Disabilities Act, ADA
Todd A. Smith Photography / courtesy Nichols Design Associates
Improving diversity and inclusion in the profession will require companies to ensure people with sensory disabilities can communicate "on an equal footing with those who do not have such disabilities."
â€śCan you read my lips?â€ť â€śHow do you communicate with others at work?â€ť â€śYou can do the technical drafting under the project leadership.â€ť These are examples of questions and statements that deaf or hard-of-hearing professionals are often asked or told in design companies today. Yet Title I of the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires companies with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified deaf or hard-of-hearing job applicants without discrimination. Are employers aware of this requirement and how to meet it? For example, do they know whether ADAâ€™s definition of â€śreasonable accommodationsâ€ť explicitly includes American Sign Language, interpreters, or closed captioning on communication display devices that deaf job applicants require during the interview hiring process?
The topic of deaf people in the workplace is likely considered by few owners and principals in their day-to-day lives due to their lack of interaction with deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Employers may not know that the provision of effective communications access entails enabling people with sensory disabilities to communicateâ€”and be communicated withâ€”on an equal footing with those who do not have such disabilities.
According to a 2019 National Deaf Center report, only 53% of deaf people were employed in 2017, versus 76% of hearing people. During the hiring process, accommodation for a disability is hardly considered without an explicit demand by the candidate. Another common oversight is the prerequisite that a prospective employee possesses oral communication and/or presentation skills in the support of team collaboration. However, do employers consider the different modes of communication that team members can utilize to exchange information?
In 2016, I founded World Deaf Architecture, a not-for profit organization that is involved within the subdivision activities of the AIA Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Approximately 20% of AIA members identify as having a disability, which can include hearing loss. With the support of the Office of EDI and in support of other minority and women advocacy groups, WDA hopes to engage leaders among the AIA membership and the Instituteâ€™s Knowledge Communities.
WDA aims to grow membership of deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals in related professionals and collaborate with topically relevant KCs on providing resources about the needs of the deaf community, such as guidance on reasonable accommodations for professionals working in the architectural studio. It is seeking to connect with design professionals in the arenas of health care, education, social justice, affordable housing, among others, and to infuse new resources into existing programs and public meetings.
Our dedicated members will share career development resources at AIA events and engage with appropriate groups to help highlight the need for greater diversity and inclusion in the workplace. We are optimistic that our new training program will enhance understanding of accessible communication and foster strong working relationships and connections outside the AIA.
Through small and bold actions, WDA is creating opportunities for the deaf community. While leading the evolution of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 into the current ADA of 1990, former President George H.W. Bush had received many letters from the parents of children with disabilities who expressed anger and angst at the discrimination against their childâ€™s disability. From 1984 to 1986, Bush started a new initiative for disability rights and submitted the report as an early draft of the ADA to Congress in February 1986. Four years later, he signed the ADA into law as president. We know we cannot wait for closed doors to magically open on their own.
As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, WDA will move forward with its overarching goal to increase access to employment opportunities for deaf architects across the nation. The organization will provide AIA member training on the benefits of hiring, developing, and promoting design professionals with hearing loss, as well as resources for hard-of-hearing architects to grow their own practices. Moreover, WDA plans to provide mentoring to deaf architecture students in the foreseeable future. We will hold steadfast to our vision of building an organizational structure that can sustain deaf, de