In May of 2019, Laura Siegel was celebrating. She finally had a job offer, as an office manager in Berlin, at Optical Expressions. Laura had struggled to find jobs in her field her entire adult life.
Over the past four years, Laura had been taking online courses toward her MBA (Masters of Business Administration) as well as applying to jobs in her field of healthcare management. Altogether since 2018, Laura had applied to over 3,000 jobs all over the United States.
Laura Siegel was born hearing and later diagnosed with a hearing loss due to large doses of an antibiotic, Gentamicin, which was given to her as a premature infant. Laura has an identical twin sister named Carolyn who is able to hear. Laura and Carolyn attended separate high schools due to Laura’s Deafness. Carolyn attended a private school, while Laura attended a nearby public school. If private schools do not accept federal funds, they legally don’t have to provide reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities.
After high school, Laura attended the University of Vermont, where she got her BA (Bachelor of Arts) in English and Theater. She relocated to Washington D.C where she got her Ultrasound Technology certification from George Washington University in 2012. Since she attended that school, she had 2 different jobs doing ultrasound. They were both cut short because they told Laura that she did not have enough experience. Since then, Laura has been aggressively trying to apply for ultrasound jobs. She stated, “My classmates all had [ultrasound jobs], except me. So I thought something fishy is happening.”
Discrimination against people in the workplace can be hard to prove because businesses can make up excuses to fire someone to avoid lawsuits. In Laura’s case, she believes that the business’s excuse was that she was not experienced. “Some people couldn’t believe I didn’t sue the first job,” Laura explains, “But if I had sued it means I would have needed proof, but it’s my word against them.”
Laura also chose not to sue because in doing so she would be essentially blackballing herself from getting any hospital jobs in the future. Laura’s father told her she would be “committing career suicide” if she tried to sue the hospital. There are laws in place that try to prevent discrimination against disabled people, but they aren’t always effective.
The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including employment, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. One of the reasons this law was created to prevent discrimination in the workplace environment. In theory, the law should protect disabled people to keep themselves employed, but since the ADA went into effect in 1990, an MIT study found the employment rates have decreased for disabled men ages 21 to 58 and for disabled women ages 21 to 39. The ADA turns disabled people into potential lawsuits, and because the majority of litigation happens after a disabled person is fired, companies believe the safest way to avoid cost is by not hiring disabled people. Companies then become reluctant to hire disabled people because they could be considered a hindrance.
After completing her ultrasound technology program and getting her license, Laura applied to many hospitals for ultrasound jobs all over the country but was struggling to find any positions. She made the difficult decision to move back home to Vermont in 2015. When she moved back home Laura picked up eight odd jobs to pay her bills and get her through graduate school. In 2015 she enrolled in Southern New Hampshire University and took online classes to get her MBA (Masters of Business Administration). While she was taking classes online, she continued to apply for ultrasound jobs all over the country, “It hurts me emotionally,” Laura says. “to have that frustration getting a job in ultrasound.”
In November of 2018, Laura started to aggressively search for jobs in healthcare management. She would apply and get many interviews, but no job offers. More than half of the interviews were on the phone, so Laura had to communicate through video phone. She would have an interpreter through the Video Relay Service communicate using American Sign Language to translate what the interviewer was saying and the interpreter would relay information to the hearing person by translating Laura’s message. It’s similar to facetiming, in the sense that a Deaf person is face to face with an interpreter over the phone. Laura believes the phone interviews gave the employers the wrong idea that she was unable to speak and function without an interpreter on the job. While not all Deaf people have the ability to speak, Laura grew up orally learning to speak first and learned ASL (American Sign Language) later in life. “It’s better to have the interview in person,” says Laura, “because once they see me, they think, oh it’s not that bad.”
One of Laura’s many interviews was at Optical Expressions in Berlin. Soon after Laura applied she was offered a job there as office manager. She started her job there in May. When I interviewed her in October she still worked at Optical Expressions, but a few weeks after the interview, she was laid off due to financial burdens. Now Laura is again searching for jobs.
Laura’s story is typical of Deaf people’s struggles with unemployment. According to a study by totaljobs.com, 72% of Deaf or HoH (Hard of Hearing) people feel unsupported and full of frustration when it comes to finding a job, while 47% of Deaf or HoH people with jobs have admitted that they don’t receive enough support or resources from their employer. Luckily, many Deaf community groups organize conferences to support Deaf/HoH people in finding jobs. These conferences can offer support and provide resources for Deaf people as well as act as a job fair.
Laura also gets support from her family “If you have that struggle with unemployment it can really damage your confidence,” Laura says, “if you don’t have a good support system it’s even worse. I’m lucky my family is very supportive of my journey.”
Discrimination of disabled people, specifically Deaf/HoH people comes from a lack of understanding. Hearing people make many assumptions about Deaf people’s capabilities. Laura wants hearing people to know that Deaf people are capable of doing everything a hearing person can do. “I have an MBA,” Laura says, “[I can read], and write and drive and have children and do everything you can do.”
Should private schools be allowed to discriminate against disabled students?
How can the ADA be improved to better support disabled people in being hired for and keeping jobs?
What would you do in Laura’s situation with her job at the hospital? Would you have sued the hospital for discrimination?