Saturday, June 23, 2007

Reasonable Accommodations

What would you do if you suddenly became deaf or blind? If you were to become the victim of either one of these unfortunate events, what would you do? How would you manage?

Abstract Photo Blurred image of swingNever mind the fact that many of your hobbies would be affected -- that your quality of life would suffer. How would your life be affected in financial terms? Suppose that you were struggling to pay off student loans and a mortgage, and your job paid you well enough to just barely keep up with these expenses. Would you be able to find an employer who would be understanding about your newfound disability and yet still pay you enough to maintain your standard of living? How about your current employer? Would you still be able to work?

Yes, there is health and disability insurance, but will the benefits that you receive from those plans be enough to last you the rest of your life? The answer -- unfortunately -- is that these benefits will most likely either expire after a specified amount of time, or they will simply not be enough to cover your daily living expenses.

Now, this isn't a sales pitch. I know absolutely nothing about insurance and have spent a minuscule amount of time studying the topic, but I do wonder how I would live and get by if I were to lose me sensory abilities.

Adapting to a disability

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a person who is deaf. I was the manager of a series of summer camp stores, and Shawn was a clerk. One of the stores staffed four clerks. There were two cash registers, a crafts station, and a candy and ice cream station that required staffing. At first, I wasn't sure exactly where to place my deaf staff member.

Royal Alpha 580 Cash Register used by Deaf EmployeeI trained all of the clerks on the cash registers, which were Royal Alpha 580 programmable cash registers. I didn't plan on training Shawn on this aspect of the store simply because I did not think that he would be able to handle interacting with customers. The lines in the store would sometimes be so long that they would extend past the entrance, and I worried that he would have problems in terms of communication.

When the time came to conduct the training, I could clearly see that Shawn wanted in on the action. Against what I thought was my better judgment, I took some time to train him on the different aspects of the cash register. Since I did not know sign language, I wrote instructions down in a notepad that Shawn brought with him that he used so that he could communicate with the hearing world. I explained that the "Cash" button was to be used when the customer paid a transaction with cash and I emphasized -- as I did with all my clerks -- that the "Credit Card" button should be used for credit cards. Most transactions that came through the store were cash transactions, and it was very easy to get into the mindset of thinking of the big "Cash" button as the "I want to open the cash register now" button.

I put the cash register in "training mode", which meant that any transactions that my trainees entered into the register would not be recorded on the X or Z daily reports. I then proceeded to grab random items in the store for my trainees to ring up. Some clerks required a little more attention than others, and I think Shawn fell right in the middle. Since he was the last trainee, and since he had observed the other clerks during their training, he caught on very quickly.

I was amazed when I walked into the store on the busiest days and saw Shawn working on the main register. We would typically only open register number two when we got very busy. Shawn had everything under control. He even opened the store one evening and worked the first hour all by himself! The store was busy, everything was perfectly under control, and Shawn was calm as the eye of a hurricane.

The reason that Shawn was so calm is that -- being born deaf -- he had long ago adapted to what the hearing world views as a disability. It wasn't him who had a problem with being deaf.

No! It was us, the hearing world, who had the problem, who had to adapt. While it is true that we had to overcome his lack of auditory perception, he didn't meet us halfway. He met us about three-quarters of the way while we only met him one-quarter of the way. All of his tricks -- the notepad he carried, writing "I'm deaf" on his nametag, turning the display on the register so he could communicate the total amount due, without words, to his customers -- were designed to help others minimize the amount of adapting that they would have to do. His demands were small in terms of needing reasonable accommodations, in fact, none were necessary.

Adapting to our own limitations

Photo of Moonrise over waterI often wonder if I would be able to adapt if I were to become blind or deaf. As a systems programmer, I rely heavily on my ability to view and interpret text on a computer screen. Should this ability be compromised, I wonder what would happen.

But then I think about things that I've done to adapt as a programmer, just by using the senses that I do have. There is a small percentage of people in the world who have an eidetic memory. When you have this fascinating ability to remember everything that you're exposed to, you don't have to learn mnemonic devices or practice techniques for organizing large amounts of information. You probably wouldn't understand what it is like to have an average mental capacity, unless you're Orlando Serrell. Since I don't have an eidetic memory, I have to use diagrams and pictures when designing an application. In order to limit the number of distractions when I am programming, I create shortcuts for lengthy but often-used commands. This allows me to stay focused on my goal and limit the number of variables that I must keep in my head all at once. I've adapted to not having an eidetic memory, something that I've of course never had, but nonetheless I've adapted.

If you or I were to suddenly go blind or deaf, we would find some way to adapt. It would take us some time, but we would eventually learn new tricks to help us overcome our disability. Just ask Ted Hart of Microsoft, who is a deaf Software Engineer who uses instant messenger and email to communicate with his colleagues and staff.

In a way, being normal or just average -- as opposed to being a savant -- can be an asset, as we are able to understand that everybody is different and that just because one person may excel in one area doesn't mean that someone else doesn't have something to offer in another area. This is what humbles us and makes us able to work as a team.

P.S. I wrote this article in the context of living in the United States of America. I wonder if adapting to such a disability would be as easily accomplished in another country?