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Passed over for promotions, no jobs in sight: Some deaf Californians question what’s fair

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Passed over for promotions, no jobs in sight: Some deaf Californians question what’s fair

In summary

Federal and state law require businesses to accommodate employees with disabilities, to an extent, but deaf people question whether employers are doing enough.

Lisa Peterson interviewed first at Kohl’s, then at TJ Maxx and Target. She applied for jobs at Raley’s, Safeway, Applebee’s, and Olive Garden, too. Once, she advanced to a second interview at the Cheesecake Factory, but like the rest, no job offer followed. 

Peterson is 60 years old, with white hair that falls just below her shoulders. She holds her hands near her face, wiggling her fingers as she pauses to recall months spent searching for an entry-level job.

For deaf adults like Peterson, finding work isn’t easy. Either they take a position that requires little person-to-person communication, or their employers must hire a sign language interpreter, which can cost a business more than a hundred dollars an hour. Once hired, some deaf adults say they struggle to attain promotions or feel a sense of belonging at work, especially when there are few other deaf people around. 

“I’ve been really just trying to prove that I can work,” said Peterson, speaking through an American Sign Language interpreter earlier this year. “…It’s been a year and a half that I’ve been doing this, and I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with them?”

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State and federal disability law require companies to make “reasonable” accommodations for employees who are deaf. California goes further than federal law by offering a more expansive definition of disability, but the definition of reasonable still depends on the size of the employer. Small businesses can argue that the hourly cost of hiring a sign language interpreter is an unreasonable burden. Large employers, such as the government or big companies, are expected to shoulder the cost of interpreters, both at the interview stage and upon hire, said Andy Imparato, executive director of Disability Rights California, a nonprofit organization. 

Compliance is “all over the place,” he said.

Working behind the scenes

The last time Peterson searched for a job was 1984, right after she had dropped out of community college. With the help of NorCal Services for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing, a Northern California nonprofit, she found a job in the state controller’s office, doing data entry. She stayed 18 years, until her daughter was diagnosed with diabetes. In 2020, Peterson decided it was time to work again and took classes at NorCal Services for the Deaf. 

To help job seekers like Peterson, California’s Employment Development Department contracts with NorCal Services for the Deaf to place career counselors within the state’s publicly run job centers. For over a year, Peterson went to a Sacramento job center near her home in Fair Oaks, often going twice a week, to work on her resume, apply for jobs, or “just keep the ball rolling,” she said. 

She had about 12 interviews, many of which she said went well. Employers are responsible for providing interpreters at interviews, but in Peterson’s case, the state covered the costs. 

“My ideal job would be retail,” she said, explaining that she wants something that allows her to be around people, such as hanging or organizing clothes in a store. But in interviews, she said, employers tried to steer her into backroom roles. 

Lisa Peterson outside of the Sacramento Works job training and resources center in Sacramento on April 23, 2024. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Lisa Peterson outside of the Sacramento Works job training and resources center in Sacramento on April 23, 2024. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Ryan Gallagher, an Employment Development Department program coordinator, was responsible for helping Peterson secure each interview. Speaking through a sign language interpreter at his Sacramento office, he said businesses often place deaf employees in warehouses, back kitchens, or in data-entry positions that have limited face-to-face communication. “They don’t want to give the client that opportunity because they don’t want to spend that much money on an interpreter,” he said.

In the past 12 months, he has had roughly 60 clients, about half of whom have found jobs. Most go on to work at Amazon, FedEx, or GoodWill, he said. 

Over time, Peterson started considering other positions outside of retail. In April, after a year and a half of searching, Peterson accepted a part-time job at FedEx, where she helps put packages together in a warehouse and earns about $18 an hour. 

“I’m happy with the work I’ve accepted at FedEx,” she said. “There’s really no time to socialize. It’s pretty busy there.”

Neither working, nor looking for work

In a 2007 survey of deaf youth across the country, more than three-quarters said they would probably or definitely graduate from college, and nearly everyone said they ultimately wanted to get a paying job. 

Those dreams are statistically unlikely in California. Roughly 22% of deaf adults 25 and older have a college degree in the state, compared to about 37% for the “hearing” population, according to a recent study by the National Center for the Deaf. The unemployment rate in California is about the same for deaf people as it is for the hearing population, but there’s a catch: The unemployment rate only considers those who are seeking work.

In California, roughly 44% of deaf adults are neither working nor looking for work — compared to about 26% of hearing people. Some deaf adults are in school or taking care of children, as Peterson did for years. Others receive Social Security Income, a government program to help low-income adults with disabilities, or don’t work for other reasons. The study only includes people ages 16 to 64. 

“It’s easier to say ‘Deaf people don’t want to work’ than to try and address the larger systemic barriers at play,” said Carrie Lou Bloom, an author of the study. 

In her other research, she has tried to understand what those barriers are. “If parents believed their kid could go to college, get a degree, and work independently,” she said, “their kid would be much more likely to achieve these goals.”

It’s the same trend for children who aren’t deaf. The difference, said Bloom: “Deaf youth just have more hurdles in front of them and less access to resources, role models, mentors.” 

Drez Brownridge, a deaf studies major, at Ohlone College in Fremont on June 17, 2024. Brownridge previously worked at Amazon loading boxes and storing goods. They said there were no accommodations for Deaf employees. Brownridge and other Deaf employees were limited to using their phone to write notes and struggled with communication. Photo by Emily Steinberger for CalMatters
Drez Brownridge, a Deaf studies major, at Ohlone College in Fremont on June 17, 2024. Brownridge previously worked at Amazon loading boxes and storing goods. They said they struggled to communicate with their boss and access promotions at work. Photo by Emily Steinberger for CalMatters

For Drez Brownridge, those hurdles began at birth. Brownridge, who uses they/them pronouns and communicated through an interpreter, said they grew up in Costa Rica with grandparents who don’t use or understand sign language. To communicate with their family, Brownridge used gestures, sent notes back and forth, and tried wearing hearing aids, often in vain. They first enrolled at Modesto Junior College in 2016 but dropped out during the COVID-19 pandemic after failing to pass English four times. 

For decades, Brownridge lived on Social Security Income, receiving around $600 a month. They were allowed to work while receiving government benefits but their income, including Social Security, could not exceed $2,000 a month. 

It wasn’t enough. “Especially in California, $2,000 a month isn’t going to get you very far,” they said. “You’re not going to be able to buy a car or a house, or conduct your life, just on Social Security Income.”

Who gets the promotion?

For those who do find work, other obstacles arise. “We often see people talking about feeling a sense of satisfaction from work, being a productive member of the community, feeling like they’re making a difference,” Bloom said. “Deaf people may not have these feelings about work, if they’re working in environments where they are constantly fighting for access, advocating for themselves, being left behind, being passed over for promotions.”

After leaving Modesto Junior College, Brownridge got a job at Amazon, where they made around $17 an hour. They worked nights, loading boxes and later, storing goods. They used their cell phone to type out notes to their manager and to other employees who didn’t understand sign language, but they struggled to build close work relationships. 

Brownridge repeatedly applied for new positions at Amazon, hoping to make at least $25, but they never moved up. “I was disappointed at what I perceived as a barrier,” they said, “… And it wasn’t just me. There were a few other deaf employees as well that were facing the same frustrations, where they had worked there maybe five or 10 years, but just couldn’t move up.” 

A spokesperson for Amazon, Sam Stephenson, said the company offers career development for all of its employers, as well as specialized services for those who need it.

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If an employer declines to offer promotion opportunities because of a disability, it could qualify as discrimination, though it can be difficult to prove or find legal resources to help, said Imparato, with Disability Rights California. “It’s hard for an individual to go to these enforcement agencies.”

With limited staff and a high volume of complaints, California’s Civil Rights Department is forced to triage cases, Imparato said. In 2022, the department had more than 300 staff processing nearly 26,000 potential discrimination cases, according to the most recent data. Over the course of the year, the department reached just over 650 settlements, though many other cases used private lawyers or fell outside of the state’s legal jurisdiction. 

Brownridge never complained about the lack of a promotion, they said. Instead, they left Amazon in 2022 and re-enrolled at community college, this time at Ohlone College, where they now major in Deaf studies. Attending a school with a large population of deaf students colored how they look back on their career at Amazon. “It wasn’t until I got into the Deaf community,” they said, “that I was told that it was my right to go for those jobs, that I had a right to succeed just like anybody else.”

Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

Financial support for this story was provided by the Smidt and Irvine foundations.

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