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IKEA Patronizes Deaf People

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I decided to share the letter—it happened today on April 30th back in 2010. That was when I quit my job there. I sent the letters to all the managers over the world including store directors and co-workers via my IKEA work e-mail address that time.

Dear IKEA staff, management, and corporate headquarters,

I am writing this letter of resignation with two purposes in mind. One is obviously to inform you that I have decided to leave my position at IKEA. The other is to inform you of something much more important, and that is my assessment that IKEA is not a company in which anyone Deaf will feel on equal footing with his or her hearing coworkers.

To place my own experience at IKEA in perspective, I will explain the larger societal context of my employment. The national unemployment rate usually ranges somewhere between 4% and 6%. The national Deaf unemployment rate ranges from 60%-90%, with underemployment almost 100% guaranteed (that is, being employed at a position far below the skill level of the employee). There are Deaf people with Master’s Degrees in various disciplines who work at places like K-Mart on the overnight shift, simply because companies will not hire them. Discrimination, whether overt and covert, is everywhere. Deaf people can do anything hearing people can, except hear, but that fact seems to have escaped employer’s attention on a grand scale.

Considering this context, I felt lucky to have found a job at IKEA, doing something I enjoy. Unfortunately, my experience has been a painful and frustrating one, marked by numerous incidents in which coworkers, managers, and others refused to treat me with dignity and respect.

When I first started working at IKEA, I informed my coworkers that I was Deaf. I am a very friendly, sociable, and outgoing person, and I genuinely looked forward to building relationships with everyone. Part of what makes any workplace a “home” is the feeling that you are accepted and belong in a network of social relationships. At first, everyone would say “hello” to me. Over time, however, many of my coworkers refused to acknowledge my existence, avoided socializing with me, and some have even tried to avoid looking me in the eye, for fear they might have to start a conversation with me. Why? Because I am Deaf.

What makes me particularly upset about this situation that occurred, is that I spent a lot of my childhood being trained to fit into the hearing world. I spent years in speech therapy and learned to read lips. All of that effort on my behalf is rewarded by social ostracism at my workplace because it’s bothersome for people to make even the slightest effort to meet me half way. Communication is a two way street, and so are relationships. I once asked a coworker if I talked too much, and he replied yes, because, “it takes too much of my time to understand you, so I’d rather talk to someone else in a normal pace.” That was hurtful and frustrating at the same time.

Here are some other examples of typical moments for me at work. I’ve worked at IKEA since 2007, and I have been very good at my job. I help others out whenever I can. Has any coworker ever written a TACK card to thank me for helping out? Not once in three years. Have I ever been invited to any social event after work, along with my other coworkers? Again, not once in three years.

At one point I thought a solution could be to encourage everyone to approach and interact with me, by giving them tips on how to approach any Deaf person. I spent significant time outside of work, writing an article for the IKEA newsletter, explaining very clearly (and it’s not rocket science) the simple ways that a Deaf person and hearing person could understand one another and communicate better in the workplace.

In my original version of the article, before it was edited, I wrote about how the comment my coworker made about how difficult it was to understand me hurt my feelings, and I wrote about how the question, “Do you read lips?” can make a Deaf person feel (for those who don’t/can’t, judged, for those who do, anxious). Basically, lipreading means never feeling sure you have understood everything someone is saying, regardless of your skill at it. I also included a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., encouraging people to make the effort to cross cultures and get to know someone different. Here is that quote:

These three parts of my article were edited out, because the editor felt I “veered into the negative,” and would make my coworkers feel uncomfortable. This was essentially erasing my end of the communication experience from the article—my thoughts, feelings, and perspective were literally cut out. What makes that so offensive to me, is that these are the exact kinds of things that hearing people need to know in order to understand better how to relate to someone who is Deaf. I didn’t just want to give them tips on how to speak facing me so I could read their lips. I wanted to give them insight into what it’s like to be me, what it’s like to be on my end of this two-way communication street. That information could have built bridges between me, and every co-worker I encountered from then on. Instead, it was erased, and in a sense, I felt erased.

After the article came out, I continued to do my job, and I continued to persevere in trying to make connections with my co-workers. The article did not make a difference. Two of my co-workers, Danielle and Josh, were so rude in not acknowledging me or making any attempt at communication (even non-verbal, as in making some kind of eye contact, or waving hello), that I brought up their behavior to my own managers. Both of them denied what they had done, and Danielle denied knowing I was Deaf. She was there in the locker room when I told all my co-workers I was Deaf. This was a blatant lie on her part.

As a result of me bringing up this anti-social behavior, I believe I got the reputation for being “difficult” and even got written up for MY behavior. My “offense” was asking a co-worker, “What’s wrong with this product?” so that I could fix it. Another co-worker, Kerri, simply told her managers that she “could not talk to me” because I am Deaf. Excuse me?

You might think I am overly focused on the social aspects of the workplace. But try to imagine going through your workday without communicating with your co-workers. Imagine your co-workers avoiding you entirely. Imagine never socializing with your co-workers. Imagine having the feeling that every conversation is being held behind your back. Meanwhile, you are making every possible effort to reach out and become part of the social network—and time after time, you are rejected, made to feel like you are a “problem” and mostly, placated by your managers and actively ignored by your co-workers.

Beyond this day-to-day alienation, let me move on to the lack of accommodation made at monthly meetings and rally meetings. One of the reasons I am sending this to IKEA headquarters is the unacceptable practice of holding company-wide meetings without an ASL interpreter present to ensure that I not only understand whatever important information is being communicated to everyone else, but also feel like I know it when it’s time to cheer a colleague, laugh at a joke, or otherwise feel like I am included—not as a silent ghost in the room, but a real employee, like everyone else.

At one rally meeting, Sue put me at the corner table where all of the people were listening and watching the store manager, and all the managers were talking on the microphone. I was sitting there looking like the biggest fool because I’m Deaf, sitting there in silence, while everyone was laughing at jokes or whatever. I have no idea what they said, to this day.

The message that I receive when I am required to attend these meetings, is that it is important to IKEA that it looks like I am included, but in actuality, I am included only to feel entirely shut out. I am unable to participate in any level in these meetings, except as a warm body in the room. And that is exactly how much value I felt I had in that circumstance.

It might be difficult for you to grasp, but if you can imagine being at a meeting where you supposedly belong, and “team spirit” is being emphasized, and yet you are foolishly standing there, not understanding a word of what is said. The easy solution, an ASL interpreter, would have cost very little for the short amount of time needed once a month. Think of what a difference that could have made in terms of me feeling like an employee—a valued employee—and not just a token warm body, or token person with disabilities being “included.” I was not included.

Is all of this because I am Deaf? Yes, I can say that with certainty. I don’t have a problem being Deaf. I am proud of who I am, my language and my culture, and what I have accomplished in life. In my every day life, outside of IKEA I am known as an outgoing, sociable, friendly person who is easy to get along with and very good at what I do. I interact with hearing and Deaf people and do just fine. At IKEA, I have done everything I could personally do to bridge the communication and culture gap, including going above and beyond with writing the article for the newsletter. Yet, I have encountered nothing but disrespect, outright rudeness, and a very high level of intolerance for differences. I have to conclude that the problems I faced at IKEA have to do with the corporate culture at IKEA, and not with me. No matter how seriously I approached these issues I faced with colleagues, nothing serious was ever done to fix a very wrong and unfair social dynamic.

I feel exhausted and depressed thinking about how hard I worked to fit in, with no one making the slightest effort to meet me half way. Unless IKEA changes its attitude toward people with different abilities, it won’t be the kind of diverse workplace it wants to be. It won’t tap into the strengths of those with disabilities—in fact it will “disable” those very capable people by refusing to acknowledge their right to be treated fairly, equally, and respectfully. It is very disheartening to me that I am forced to resign, because I know that I added value to IKEA.

I can only take solace in knowing that perhaps this letter, along with my article (unedited and attached) will have some kind of impact on those who make hiring decisions and those who manage human resources at IKEA. If you hire Deaf employees in the future, perhaps my experience will serve to guide the way you handle their integration into the company. You might consider making all of your employees and managers, top down, aware of Deaf issues.

Frankly, I think you all need to become aware of HUMAN issues, such as the actual necessity to treat each person with the inherent dignity and respect they deserve. You can’t expect people to tolerate what I tolerated for too long.

Goodbye and good riddance,

-JT

P.S. Although you will probably disregard this part of my letter, I am including it anyway. This is my honest evaluation of my direct supervisor, Sue. Sue has been a constant source of pain and suffering for me ever since I started this job. As an employee of IKEA, I had the very basic expectation that my direct superiors would have an intellect that ranges above the common ground squirrel. Sue’s consistent and annoying belittlement and harassment, including asking me to explain every nuance of what I am doing whenever she happened to walk into my workspace, was a waste of my time and a waste of the earth’s oxygen. Sue wanders around the building all day, ceaselessly seeking fault in others. Sue has a sharp dressed look about her that may have worked for her own job interview, but now that she actually has responsibility, she pawns it off on overworked staff or underworked staff, hoping their talent will cover for her glaring ineptitude. In a world of managerial evolution, she is the blue-green alga that everyone else eats and laughs at. Analyze her job performance closely. In my opinion, she adds nothing to IKEA, and effectively ruins the environment for others.

Here’s the ORIGINAL UNEDITED version of my newsletter article, plus the comments by the editor about what April cut, and why.

My name is Jason; I work in the Recovery department. I am Deaf. Yes,
Deaf. I know…it may be surprising to some of you. Every life has its
struggles and adversity; mine is living in a community where people
don’t know my language, my culture, and my world. The struggle I face
is NOT being Deaf, for I have accepted and embraced all that it means
to be Deaf. The struggle is interaction and communication with the
“able to hear” society at large. I was actually born able to hear,
and then at 10 months old I became very sick with Rubella (German
Measles) that caused my deafness. Though some might see this as
tragic or sad, perhaps disappointing. I do not look at my life as sad
or disappointing, I am part of a culture, a world, a language known as
ASL (American Sign Language), and the Deaf Community with all its own
cultural differences and uniqueness.

“Can you read lips?”

I have been asked so many times whether I could read lips or speech
read. I never know what presumption is behind this question. It is a
tricky question to answer. If I answer no, would it imply that I was
uneducated? Insubordinate? Defiant? Less human? If I said yes, would
it mean that I was cooperating? Cheating? Getting by? Lying? It has
the potential to cause so much confusion… If I guess at what was being
said to the best of my ability then do I appear to be more human or
equal to you? We simply speak (or use) different languages.

Do not assume all Deaf people can lip-read or speech-read. At best,
only 30% of English speech is unambiguously identifiable on the lips.
Many different sounds look the same on the lips. Lip-reading is a
skill that some people have a more natural affinity for than others.
This ability is not at all correlated with intelligence. If you ever
are curious as to the difficulty of lip-reading, next time you watch
TV, turn off the volume and try to understand the conversation. I
would venture to guess that most of you would lose patience after only
a minute or two. It can be quite frustrating and often the context is
lost. In general, the best way to communicate with a Deaf person if
you don’t know American Sign Language is through an interpreter.

For most simple conversation an interpreter would not be necessary.
When communicating with a Deaf person directly, use gestures and speak
normally this is usually pretty effective. Another approach could be
writing on pencil and paper. Don’t be afraid to approach a Deaf
person, just make eye contact so the Deaf person knows you are there
and most attempts to communicate is appreciated.

When you are communicating with a Deaf person make eye contact,
enunciate clearly, but do not yell or over enunciate your words, as
you will distort your lip movements and also look very foolish. No
matter how loud you yell I still cannot hear you. Remove from your
mouth objects such as cigarettes, pipes, gum, chewing tobacco, or
food. Keep your hands or any other objects from covering your mouth. A
beard or mustache may interfere and prevent the ability to read your
lips. Try to sit with a light source in front of you, not behind you
(such as a window). Use gestures that are natural and make logical
sense.

Approximately 600,000 people in the United States (0.22% of the
population, or 2.2 per 1,000) are deaf. About 3 of every 1,000 people in the
United States are “functionally deaf,” though more than half became
deaf relatively late in life.

Just less than 1 out of every 1,000 people in the United States are
Deaf and became Deaf before 18 years of age or were born deaf.

It seems rather ironic that in a society of super sophisticated
communication, we often suffer from a shortage of listeners and
interest in people or things that are different from ourselves. I ask
that we all keep an open mind to the uniqueness of each individual.
Do not fear change or be afraid to take chance to step out of the
ordinary and approach me. I recognize that I often miss out on the
daily chitchat and lighthearted conversations in the workplace.I
asked one of our co-workers recently, “Do I talk too much?” and the
co-worker said “Yes, you do because it takes too much of my time to
understand you so I’d rather talk to someone else in a normal pace”

That hurt me a lot. The barrier of using different languages, your
spoken English and my ASL, often leaves me outside of the loop of
conversation. Please take time to talk to me. I want to be part of the
group. Can you have patience with me? A handful of patience is worth
more than a bushel of brains.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote: “The soft-minded man always fears
change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost
morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a
new idea.”

I challenge you to attempt something new. Try to do something
different, outside the comfort of what is familiar. Start a
conversation with someone different from you; we all have so much to
learn from each other. We all are unique individuals and that is the
beauty of humankind.

Now from April, the Public Relations Director.

Jason-

Really great article. It’s just what I’ve been wanting- more personal
stories so we all get to know each other.

I’ve made it a bit shorter for space (Clyde and I have been shoe-horning all the
content in each month) and also tried to keep it on the positive side.
I think it still has the heart of the original, but I want to make sure you’re ok with the edits. I enjoyed the andecdote about you asking, “Do I talk too much?” but I
had to cut it because it might make that co-worker feel uncomfortable to see it in print.

I cut the section under “Can I read lips?” because it seemed to vere into the
negative a little and it didn’t answer the question.

I cut the MLK quote because it could be perceived as insulting. While, I can’t
imagine the ignorance you run up against, I think that it comes off
more positive to offer people an opportunity, as you did in the last paragraph, rather than calling them on their stupidity. I think you’ll get a better response.

Let me know if it is ok and drop by on Friday for a picture. 🙂

Thanks-
April

-JT

Copyright @ 2017 Jason Tozier

This text may be freely copied in its entirely only, including this copyright message.

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