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On October 11, the presidents of Gallaudet University and the Rochester Institute of Technology”s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) testified before members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) on the topic of “Leveraging Higher Education to Improve Employment Outcomes for People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing” at a public hearing held at Gallaudet University.

The field hearing featured testimony by Gallaudet University President T. Alan Hurwitz and National Technical Institute for the Deaf President Gerard J. Buckley. Gallaudet student Leila Hanaumi, former editor-in-chief of the student publication, The Buff and Blue, Michael J. Ellis, national director with Sprint Relay, and Seth Bravin, strategic industries program manager with IBM, also gave testimony before the committee. The HELP Committee is chaired by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and its ranking member is Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

In his opening remarks, Senator Harkin noted that according to the Census Bureau”s 2010 American Community Survey, just over 48 percent of 18-64 year olds who are deaf or hard of hearing were employed. Senator Harkin said, “none of us can be proud of the overall employment situation for people who are deaf and hard of hearing in this country.”

In his remarks, Senator Enzi stated “Institutions like Gallaudet and NTID are successful not just because they provide an education, but because they also create opportunities by working with employers to demonstrate the value of hiring their students. It is important to learn more about what each school is doing to overcome these barriers and about their partnerships with private industry. It is also essential to know what is working, as well as what challenges must be addressed.”

Following opening remarks from the two senators, two panels were introduced. The first panel featured Hurwitz and Buckley who each offered 10 minutes of testimony followed by a question and answer session with the senators.

Buckley mentioned RIT”s extensive co-op program, where students work 10-week jobs to better prepare themselves for work upon graduation. He also noted the work of the NTID Center on Employment, which works to develop relationships with employers and educate them about employing deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Buckley also noted that preparing the next generation of students for college is vital as well.

“We must encourage a spirit of innovation in our young disabled community and citizens so they are prepared to compete in the world of work,” he said. “We must continue to do more outreach to middle schools and high school students to prepare them in the fields of science, technology and engineering and math. The research shows very clearly that if our students earn a degree in that area, the gap between them and their non-disabled peers is lessened. We are committed to maintaining our focus on enhancing the employment of deaf people.”

In his testimony, Hurwitz referred to the students in the audience as the “ADA generation,” those “who truly believe that the ADA stands for the ‘American Dream for All.” He went on to state that according to data from a survey of recent graduates, 98 percent of graduate-level and 82 percent of bachelor”s level alumni were working full or part-time one year after graduation. However, he also noted several challenges and barriers to success in the workplace for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, including communication access and accommodation limitations, lack of representation in certain fields such as health care, and career advancement into management roles.

In his closing remarks he quoted President Abraham Lincoln who signed Gallaudet’s charter almost 150 years ago by stating, “The government exists ‘to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.'”

The second panel featured Bravin, Ellis and Hanaumi, each of whom gave 10 minutes of testimony followed by a questions and answer period.

Bravin called attention to several public policy issues that “inhibit our collective ability to fully enable this segment of the U.S. population to not only obtain gainful employment, but to develop meaningful and economically viable careers.” Specifically, he addressed difficulties associated with recruiting, hiring and retention of people with disabilities and the accessibility of information and communications technologies in workplaces and institutions of higher learning.

In his testimony, Ellis noted the efforts of Sprint as a private sector example for ensuring accommodations in the workplace for deaf and hard of hearing employees. These include phone amplifiers, availability of American Sign Language staff and contract interpreters, and a multi-point video software tool to allow up to 40 deaf and hearing employees, contractors and consultants to simultaneously see each other while using an ASL interpreter and/or audio conference technology. Sprint also offers to its customers and employees data-only plans, Sprint Relay Video Customer Service, hearing aid compatible wireless phones, and an array of relay services.

Hanaumi thanked the senators for “being here and continuing the fight to promote the rights of people with disabilities.” She noted with enthusiasm several key factors that have contributed to her success as a student while at Gallaudet, including the work of the campus” career center in providing opportunities to work and gain experience in her intended profession, successful outcomes resulting from campus career fairs and the university”s work recruitment program, direct communication access and classroom support services, and the continuing encouragement and support of faculty.

In both is opening and closing remarks, Harkin noted that this field hearing marked the first time a Congressional hearing featured an all-deaf witness panel.

Watch a replay of the hearing at the Senate Committee’s website.

Photos: Matthew Vita

Gallaudet University, federally chartered in 1864, is a bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution of higher education that ensures the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals through American Sign Language and English. Gallaudet maintains a proud tradition of research and scholarly activity and prepares its graduates for career opportunities in a highly competitive, technological, and rapidly changing world.

NTID, one of nine colleges of RIT, was established by Congress in 1965 to provide college opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing students who were underemployed in technical fields. Today, a record 1,547 students attend NTID; more than 1,350 are deaf or hard of hearing; others are hearing students enrolled in interpreting or deaf education programs. RIT is internationally recognized for academic leadership in computing, engineering, imaging technology, sustainability and fine and applied arts, in addition to unparalleled support services for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

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