Great Things Happen When We Listen with Open Minds

Over the years I have heard many stories from people within the disability community about discrimination they have faced in many facets of their lives. One of the most common mistakes that people make when they interact with people with disabilities is to assume the person isn’t capable because of their disability. This happens when they go to school and teachers underestimate them, when they apply for a job and are passed over because of lack of understanding by the employer, and sometimes even when embracing independence in their personal lives, when family members hold them back for fear of them being on their own. When we lower the bar for people with disabilities, we not only prevent them from reaching their potential, but we miss out on the benefits of having them as a full participant in our classes, our workforce, our families and our society. People with disabilities want the opportunity to showcase their talents, reach for their dreams, and contribute to the communities in which they live.

One of the areas where discrimination plays a large part in limiting career opportunities is when a person has a speech related disability. There are many types of speech disabilities, including aphasia, dysphonia, stuttering, dysarthria, apraxia and more. Some disabilities, such as autism, hearing loss or cerebral palsy for example, may also play a part in contributing to a speech disability. Regardless of the individual characteristics of a particular type of speech disability, there is one commonality, other people regularly underestimate and dismiss people with speech disabilities without listening to what they have to offer as employees. Yet, time and again, my employees have proven themselves to be reliable, productive, and innovative. What people don’t realize when they judge a person on how their disability affects their speech instead of what they are saying, is they are missing out on great team members.

Some of the common misconceptions that I have encountered with employers who are interviewing people with speech disabilities have included a perception that because a person has a speech disability they are nervous or unsure of their skill level, that they will struggle to communicate effectively with team members, customers or leadership, and that speech disabilities denote a lack of intelligence. The truth is that having a speech disability is not indicative of any of those things.

When interviewing a person with a speech disability or asking them to present to their team members, remember that feeling of nervousness or anxiety is a natural response to these situations for both people with and without disabilities. However, keep in mind that while speech disabilities are not caused by nerves or anxiety, the natural feeling of nervousness or anxiety a person experiences in these situations can be increased as a result of how the listener or audience responds. That appearance of extra nervousness or increased anxiety may be a reaction to the visual or physical social cues you are giving rather than any concerns the candidate feels about their ability to do the job, present data on a team project to leadership, or participate in team meetings to brainstorm innovative business solutions.

People with speech disabilities are often targets of ridicule, bullying, and avoidance. They are well acquainted with people who respond with impatience, laughter and dismissal, regardless of their accomplishments or talents. I have heard so many appalling stories from the people I talk with in the disability community about how they were treated growing up and in school, and not just by their fellow students but by teachers who told them not to talk in class or that they could not participate in group presentations. James Earl Jones, an actor well-known for his voice, has talked about how painful it was to grow up with a speech disability, due to the reactions of those around him. He has shared stories of how when he was young and in Sunday school the other kids would laugh when he’d read lessons aloud due to his stutter. Even as an adult he would talk about watching the reaction of others who were nervous on behalf of the person with a stutter. James Earl Jones is not the only recognizable name with a speech disability either…former Vice President Joseph Biden, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Darren Sproles, Barbara Walters … the list of people with speech disabilities who have been successful in arenas and on the field, on the stage and screen, and in politics goes on. Having a speech disability does not limit a person’s ability to achieve success, but lack of opportunity due to misconception and discrimination does.

Some people with speech disabilities may rely on the use of various software or hardware solutions that provide accommodations with verbal communications, such as an alternative communication device, voice amplification or outgoing voice amplification for a telephone, or use of a tablet or instant messaging to communicate. These solutions allow for employees with speech disabilities to communicate effectively within the professional environment but are not well understood by the general population. This is one of the reasons my partner, Andy Houghton, and I decided to use a technology produced voice for our iDisabilityTM eLearning product narrators. The more familiar employees are with hearing this type of voice, the more open they will be to true inclusion of people with speech disabilities. If people hear this type of voice regularly then they become accustomed to it and are less likely to be unprepared when hearing it in the professional environment.

I remember placing a candidate with cerebral palsy in an IT role who used an alternative communication device when he started working. It has been over a decade since he joined the team at Highmark, and he has had such an impact on his colleagues through the work he does. Everybody knows him at work, and he has become an important member of the team. In more recent years, we hired a candidate through our Careers2B program with an educational background in computer science, engineering and applied mathematics who has since successfully completed the program. In his current role, he not only interfaces with customers and presents in front of leadership, but was recently interviewed for an op-ed piece written by Ted Kennedy, Jr. Yet when he graduated cum laude with his bachelor’s degree, he went on countless interviews before receiving a job offer. Each time employers were impressed with his resume, but when they heard him speak decided not to pursue him as a candidate. My customer tells me they are glad everyone else missed out as he is such a value to their team. I can share so many stories like these, of people I have placed who have become invaluable to their employers; yet there are still so many barriers to employment for people with disabilities.

It is time to accept that when it comes to speech disabilities, it is not the disability, but the misconception that prevents people from joining the workforce. It is only by pushing the boundaries of what is comfortable that people find what is worthwhile. I urge everyone to listen with an open mind when considering applicants with speech related disabilities – your next star employee could be sitting in the chair across from you.

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