Deaf Face Greater Workplace Challenges

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The deaf are often overlooked in the discussion of employment rates for the disabled because they have what one advocate calls “the invisible disability.”

“When you see somebody walking down the street who is deaf or hard of hearing, unless they are signing, more than likely you’ll never notice that they’re deaf,” says Steve Leland, director of the Community Center for the Deaf  at Easterseals Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana Counties.

Easterseals is a nonprofit organization that offers a range of services to those with disabilities and their families. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, kindergarten readiness and other services are offered.

According to the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes, national employment statistics show 41.7% of deaf people are not in the labor force, as opposed to 24.9% of hearing people. Additionally, of people ages 16-64, an estimated 2.1% of the Ohio population is deaf, or about 152,662 individuals.


Vocational services are a large part of the Easterseals program, says Leland, with the agency providing training and job placement.

“We also do a benefits analysis so that those who are getting Social Security can look at how getting a job may affect those benefits,” he says.

Communications barriers that Leland often sees for deaf clients seeking employment include problems filling out paperwork and understanding requirements from employers.

“Most deaf people communicate using American Sign Language, which is a completely different language from English,” Leland says.

Interpreters are often the key to getting past these communication barriers, says Leland.

The Community Center for the Deaf works directly with Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, a state office that helps Ohioans with disabilities gain employment.

“Sometimes that means being able to segue off of Social Security benefits,” says Leland. “Sometimes that means being able to work in conjunction with your Social Security benefits. It all depends on the severity and type of disability that you have.”

Leland says deaf individuals are placed into a variety of jobs including hourly factory line work, calling centers, warehouses, custodial jobs, financial jobs and teaching positions for universities.

“We have helped them get hired into all levels that you could imagine,” he says.

Among job readiness skills taught deaf clients are how to prepare for a job, how to travel to the job, how to use public transportation, how to prepare for the driver’s license written test and appropriate attire.

“We have worked with a lot of them to find out requirements to be able to get a job as, say, a mechanic,” says Leland. “’What kind of certifications do I need and how do I get those certifications?’ We’ll work on them with that.”

The center teaches employers how to provide an interpreter when necessary and set up videophones.

“We started doing job placement about eight years ago and since then, we have helped over 50 deaf individuals,” he says.


When it comes to focusing on challenges in disability employment, Leland believes the deaf community is often overlooked.

Oftentimes, when a deaf person applies for a job, employers first notice that their English isn’t very good on the application, says Leland. This leads to the person being bypassed without realizing that something else is going on, he says.

“With other disabilities, a lot of the requirements under ADA are physical changes to a building, accessibility and different things like that,” he says. “Accessibility for the deaf is primarily removing language barriers.”

In one instance, Leland dealt with a local employer who required employees to call in for their schedules for the upcoming week. He says because deaf people are unable to make that call, they had to work with the employer to set up a system for deaf employees.

“If a hearing person can walk in and talk to an office, a deaf person has to be given that opportunity,” says Leland. “For a deaf person to be able to do that, that means providing interpreting services. Therefore the business has to provide the cost of that equal access.”


Leland has noticed a slight increase in job opportunities for the deaf since the pandemic.

“We have seen some upturn recently with more willingness to hire,” he says. “It seems a lot of expectation actually happened during the pandemic. A lot of employers have learned a lot about their obligations.”

Data show the pandemic has prompted employers to be more open to hiring those with disabilities.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for disabilities has been on the rise since April 2021. By August 2021, the employment-population ratio for those with disabilities exceeded its prepandemic level at 19.4%.

Kim Jump, chief of communications for Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, says some employers have hosted virtual hiring events for work from home positions.

“The changing workplace in a lot of ways has been good for those with disabilities,” she says.

“After the pandemic, some of the silver linings have been increased visibility of people with disabilities – for example with sign language and interpretation here in Ohio,” adds Jump. “It put it more on the radar. There are more telework opportunities, which is game-changing for some people with disabilities when transportation is a barrier.”


In fiscal 2022, Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities served 1,719 Ohioans who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Katie Sheetz, program manager of deaf services at OOD, says the agency works with a variety of rehabilitation counselors for the deaf and is identifying gaps within the services.

“The counselors meet with our deaf and hard of hearing individuals,” she says. “They help them understand both their limitations and their strengths. They help them come up with vocational goals. They help identify the services that are going to help them get to those vocational goals. And they work with them throughout their employment journey to make sure they have all of the support they need to be successful.” 

OOD’s Jump says the agency has more than 300 vocational rehabilitation provider organizations and more than 500 employer partners in the state. “Ohio businesses that are committed to an inclusive workforce have partnerships with us to source qualified candidates with disabilities,” she says.

Sheetz, the program manager, says the agency can play a small but important role when there is “a little gap” in a client’s life.

“[Maybe] they got a letter that they don’t fully understand,” she says. “They have a full time job, they have a family that they are supporting, they have a car, they have a house. But because of their specific disability, reading a letter is challenging.”

Sheetz says there needs to be a place where the deaf  can receive that basic support, and that’s where Community Centers for the Deaf come in.

“We are working on people’s desires to stay independent in their home,” she says. “We do a lot of different services to help people in their journeys with their disabilities.”

Sheetz says misconceptions can hamper those in the deaf community.

“Maybe since I grew up with a deaf brother, I assume all deaf people are going to be like my brother,” she says. “That’s very common but it is not fair. If I apply my stereotypes or experiences to the next person,  then they’re not going to get their needs met because those needs are individualized.”

Strengths, communication styles and personal stories vary from person to person, she continues. “The invisibility of the disability plays a part into the experience. But more than that, I encourage people to see people for who they are as an individual.”

The array of employment options for those with disabilities is broader than what many think, says Sheetz.

Hiring someone with a disability is another way to add diversity to the workplace, she says.

“When you have someone that has a different life experience – if they have to get out of bed differently or if they have to learn how to communicate differently, or if they have to get to work in a different way than everyone else – that means something,” Sheetz says. “It gives that person another worldview or another experience that is put into their work”

Employers interested in incorporating people with disabilities into their workplace can schedule a meeting at

Pictured at top: Mackenzie Goranitis, case coordinator and employment specialist for the Community Center for the Deaf at Easterseals, works with Dorothy, a client.