Life in the Deaf-Blind Lane: National Disability Employment Awareness Month—Part 1

By Benetech, posted on

“Because We Are EQUAL to the Task.” My first response to this theme was that it didn’t extend far enough. Not only are we equal to the task—we also have so much more to offer. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s start again.

My name is Liz Halperin and I contract for Benetech, working as a Collection Development Associate with Bookshare. I also happen to be Deaf-Blind with added orthopedic disabilities and serve as the Deaf-Blind contact person for Bookshare. I was asked to contribute this post to kick off a blog mini-series marking Benetech’s observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Held each October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month is a national campaign that educates about disability employment issues and celebrates the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. I’m glad to take this opportunity to share some thoughts about my experience as a contractor with disabilities.

Each year, National Disability Employment Awareness Month has a theme, and the one this year is “Because We Are EQUAL to the Task.” This theme, I think, does reflect the reality that people with disabilities often have the education, training, experience and desire to be successful in the workplace. But I also believe that it doesn’t stretch far enough. That’s because, by being who we are, we add to the workforce much more than the sum of our individual tasks. To explain that, let me give you an example from my own experience at Benetech.

I work remotely from my home in Portland, OR, using a vast array of low to high tech adaptive solutions. My job as a Bookshare Collection Development Associate means that I work as an in-house proofreader, correcting errors in book scans before they are added to the collection and become public to our members. But, as I said, I’m also responsible for outreach to the deafblind community. This added responsibility was originally not within the scope of my job and had not even been planned when I was initially hired. What happened was that Benetech recognized that my disability puts me in a unique—I’d even say favorable—position to reach out to the deafblind community. The opportunity to help Benetech extend its service to this underserved, relevant and historically unknown population has reinforced my sense of what I CAN do.

Last month I made my annual trip down to Benetech’s Palo Alto office for a week of meetings, renewing ties and forward planning with various departments and team members. I gave a popular all-company presentation, “Life in the Deaf-Blind Lane,” explaining how I access my work for Benetech, and the world for my life. This time, I included a new topic: demonstrating how Deaf-Blind people use technology to make Video Relay Calls. I also talked about the ever-evolving nature of American Sign Language (ASL) and how new signs for rapidly evolving technology become standardized. This includes signs for, and related to, Bookshare.

Benetech fosters an all-inclusive work culture. For example, it has always understood that, unlike other off-site workers, I’m unable to join phone conferences. My colleagues and I have devised methods that allow me to get the information I need in alternative ways. We work as a team on these issues. When I visit the office, Benetech is responsive to my on-site communication needs, including specialized ASL interpreters, transportation or guide dog etiquette. I’m also glad to say that there’s currently an emphasis on improving Benetech’s overall in-house accessibility for employees with disabilities.

I think that together, we’re proving that workers with disabilities aren’t only “Equal to the Task,” but also enrich everyone’s experience. Together, we make a stronger, richer workforce for the betterment of society.