Deaf men allege job bias at APG

Promotions, training withheld, they say

June 07, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Two deaf employees at Aberdeen Proving Ground say they are being discriminated against because of their disability, and one has filed a formal complaint with the federal government.

Gerald Bowman, 41, and his brother-in-law Steve Schuman, 44, allege that they have been denied overtime, promotions and training, are discouraged from communicating with each other using sign language, and have been transferred to later shift work because they are deaf.

Both men work as technicians for the Defense Automated Printing Service, a tenant at the proving ground. Bowman filed a formal complaint last month with the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees their employer.

Speaking through an interpreter, the men recently met with Harford County state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Joppatowne Republican, and told of several problems -- from having to go to another floor in the building to use a special phone for the deaf to alleged unfair treatment by supervisors -- that they say have left them feeling isolated and discriminated against.

"I have 20 years in as a civil servant and I want to work," Bowman said. "It makes you depressed."

Officials at the Defense Automated Printing Service declined to discuss the case because it is being investigated. But a spokesman for the Defense Logistics Agency said the agency makes every attempt to accommodate disabled employees, including those with impaired hearing.

"We have some employees who are assigned interpreters full time," said Lynford Morton, a spokesman with the agency. "It is up to the employee to decide what level of assistance they need."

Previous complaint

Bowman said that, in 1995, he filed a complaint, alleging that he was denied access to computer training because the printing service refused to hire an interpreter, saying the cost would be prohibitive.

That complaint was settled in 1997, with the employer agreeing to provide an interpreter and computer training, along with a retroactive promotion. A year later, Bowman said, he was sent to Philadelphia to receive training, with an interpreter present.

Bowman filed his latest complaint May 5, after he and Schuman were placed on the night shift in November, which he said meant they would no longer receive the 400 to 500 hours of overtime a year they had been receiving on the day shift.

Schuman, through an interpreter, said he believes the transfers were punitive and said supervisors separated him and Bowman after trying to prohibit them from signing to each other because they needed their hands to do their jobs.

"If they see us signing, they would say, `Come on, I have some work for you to do,' " said Schuman, who has worked there for 15 years. "The hearing people are allowed to talk, and we should be able to, too. It helps to deal with the stress of the job when you can talk during work."

The printing service has refused to comment on those or other allegations.

Common complaints

Nancy Parrish, director of the Deaf Action Center of Dallas, said hearing-impaired employees often feel cut off from the workplace because of the challenge of communicating with others.

"Deafness isn't just about what's in the ear, it's also about communication," said Parrish, whose organization provides job training and other services to the deaf in northern Texas. "If you are in a wheelchair or blind, you can still communicate, but it is more difficult for a deaf person."

Parrish said deaf employees often complain that they are passed over for promotions and overtime and not included in meetings and training because of their disability.

"We hear from a lot of people who say there will be a quick meeting where there is no time to get an interpreter and the person will be told, `We'll tell you what happened at the meeting later' -- but they aren't told," Harris said. "The problems they face include being underemployed or unemployed, and fitting in at the workplace. Often, they have to prove they are as good as, if not better than, hearing employees."

Social Security efforts

At the Social Security Administration, officials have a comprehensive program for the administration's 72 deaf Maryland employees, including two full-time interpreters on staff and nine contract interpreters, along with telephone communication devices and oral interpretation for those who read lips.

Linda Jackson, disability services team leader at SSA, said officials provide as much support as they can for their deaf employees.

"I know that we go beyond the minimum requirement and, fortunately, we are able to do that," Jackson said.

Jacobs said her staff is looking into the allegations by Bowman and Schuman and hopes to help them resolve their issues.

"Even though they are civil servants and this is a federal issue, I want to make sure we are looking into this on a state level," Jacobs said. "If it's happening there, it could very well be happening at the state level, and we want to heighten awareness."

Pub Date: 6/07/99

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