Professional Jobs and Hearing Loss: A Comparison of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Consumers

By Boutin, Daniel L.; Wilson, Keith B. | The Journal of Rehabilitation, January-March 2009 | Go to article overview

Professional Jobs and Hearing Loss: A Comparison of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Consumers


Boutin, Daniel L., Wilson, Keith B., The Journal of Rehabilitation


Labor force trends in the United States reveal interesting patterns that are important for vocational rehabilitation (VR). Employment statistics in April of the new millennium reflected almost 130 million U.S. workers who were at least 16 years of age employed across six occupational groups (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). The highest wages for both men and women were reported as those falling in the managerial, professional, and related occupations group averaging $43,000 annually. Although the U.S. Department of Labor (1991) lists nine occupational categories, several are similar to those identified by the U.S. Census Bureau. For example, both the Department of Labor and Census Bureau recognize professional, service, sales, and farming/fishing/forestry occupational groups. Professional occupations stand out as having a quality that could benefit consumers of the state federal VR program.

More than 30 years ago, a National Association of the Deaf census found that people with hearing impairments were working in every industry (Schein & Delk, 1974). Despite receiving wages 25% below the national average, deaf workers were well represented across most occupations. Around the same time, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 began removing barriers to employment for people with disabilities within the federal government and its contractors (Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996). As a result, deaf workers expanded their working environment by seeking federal employment and jobs with large corporations who had federal contracts exceeding $10,000. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extended coverage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 into the private sector. In addition, the ADA required telephone companies to provide relay services with local and long-distance calls so that people with any degree of hearing impairments could converse with people without hearing impairments, and vice versa. Finally, deaf and hard of hearing individuals obtained civil rights protection that allows them to work in the environment of their choice.

Despite encouraging legislation, many people with hearing impairments work in a limited range of jobs. A follow-up to the 1987 Annual Survey of Hearing-Impaired Children and Youth conducted by the Center for Assessment and Demographics Studies at Gallaudet University found that 20% of deaf young adults one year out of high school were employed in food preparation jobs (Schildroth, Rawlings, & Allen, 1991). Another 17% of the deaf participants were employed in secretarial and office work. Still, 10% were employed as janitors and another 10% as stock and freight handlers. More than half of surveyed individuals with hearing impairments work in a narrow set of occupations (e.g., food, office, janitorial, handling).

The type of job obtained by persons with hearing impairments might be impacted by collegiate experience. Welsh and Walter (1988) analyzed the occupational attainments of deaf adults with and without baccalaureate degrees from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Students without college degrees represented the group most often working in technical, sales, and administrative support. In contrast, students with college degrees were most often employed in managerial and professional jobs. When factoring in degree of hearing loss, El-Khiami (1993) concluded that the proportion of deaf and hard of hearing alumni of 47 special postsecondary programs working in professional and non-professional occupations was the same. However, in a later study that examined the type of employment for college alumni across degree of hearing loss (Schroedel & Geyer, 2000), deaf alumni were reported more likely to be employed in professional, managerial, and technical occupations (62%) over clerical occupations (24%), and crafts, labor, and machine operation occupations (14%) than hard of hearing alumni (39%, 25%, 37%, respectively). Based on these studies, it is not clear as to whether collegiate experience is related to occupational type for people with hearing loss. …

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