Electric EDGE
Web Edition of
The Ragged Edge
Sept/Oct 1997

Electric Edge

One Man's Story of Discrimination

by Dean Olson

In 1988, my first year with AT&T, I experienced my first incident of discrimination.

I hear poorly over office cubicle walls -- I have a hearing loss requiring the use of the strongest behind- the-ear hearing aids on the market. One day I was working at the computer terminal and I heard an indistinct noise. I looked up. I saw two of my co-workers begin to laugh. I asked what was said, but heard no answer. Later, this incident was repeated.

I didn't usually hear an answer to asking "pardon me?" or "what did you say?" I believe no ill will was intended.

By itself, this incident meant nothing. At the time, I didn't realize it might be discrimination.

Acquaintances, friends and relatives are sometimes curious and play a game with me that is much like that. We can discover what my hearing is like via games. When I was a child, this method was used with me to help me learn to "guess" where sound comes from and what a sound is. But initiated at work by fellow employees, it's different: it creates an environment where we feel comfortable poking fun at or teasing others on the basis of their physical differences.

My experience does not reflect upon AT&T as a whole, but only parts of the corporation. I wish to portray the incidents as accurately as possible. I wrote many pages as the events occurred. I kept all email and letter copies. Others' tales have been told. My bosses have made explanations using collective experience, filters and paradigms developed in the hearing world.

I haven't been able to tell my tale until now.

From Triumph to Disaster

I was hired by AT&T right out of my MBA program at college in 1987. I was going to become a programmer-analyst with one of the largest firms in the country.

I didn't make anything of my hearing loss at first; I didn't want to bring attention to myself. I did tell folks I couldn't hear well and that they should repeat things: as a habit, I told folks.

After two and a half years, I landed my dream job with AT&T in Austin, Texas -- to help shape the computer model and debating points that would ultimately help AT&T argue to reduce long-distance charges. (The new baby Bells had started charging significant call-set up fees, called "access charges," to AT&T and other long-distance carriers). Our success with the Texas Public Utilities Commission (work that became known as the "Access Rules Docket") ultimately saved AT&T several million dollars. The model I'd developed for this caught attention outside Texas; soon I was a "consultant to consultants." I traveled from Texas to New York, New Jersey, northern Virginia and Chicago to train employees in this new model. In late 1992, I was awarded an EPIC Award from the Chicago AT&T folks; in January, New Jersey sent a letter commending our team.

I received an AT&T Spot Award for my work; in March, '92, I was awarded a 9 1/2 percent raise, the highest I'd received in my life. I'd earned an "Exceeds Expectations" rating.

These events were the best of times.

But the worst of times also began. In the summer of 1992, Steve, the manager who had recruited me to Austin, moved to New Jersey with AT&T. My job had been with Steve; most of my work -- computer-focused -- went to support his work. When he left, that changed.

As my work group -- my team -- became heavily involved in the effort to lower long-distance rates, using the computer model, developing arguments to take before the Texas Public Utilities Commission, we were less computer focused, and became a more verbally oriented office. We held more meetings; we used speakerphones.

I was unprepared for this new environment. Before I'd worked mostly one-on-one with people. I'd spent a significant amount of my time with the computer. And everyone in the office knew I heard poorly; they saw I was wearing behind-the-ear hearing aids.

I'd not done well with speakerphones or fast-paced meetings in the past; Steve had always helped me with speakerphone calls when I requested.

I didn't know what accommodations existed or what behavioral strategies I needed to survive.

Throughout my life, I'd depended on others' knowledge, good will and thoughtfulness to survive. I had succeeded on the basis of my hard work; I'd earned an MBA this way. I once believed success is a result of hard work. But competitive office politics create winners and losers. I came to see that subtle office politics create unintended, negative, exclusionary effects for those who are different, particularly those of us who experience hearing loss.

State and Public Utility Commission politics created the work in our office. But internal politics were the driving force in the office; performing well usually came in second. The key was for the employee to do a good job and be part of a project highly valued by supervisors. Good luck and being privy played important roles.

The more important tasks of the work had fallen to my peers, Marshall and Mary Anne, and they made the most of their opportunities. My co-worker José and I weren't so lucky: we worked on less important pieces, where there really wasn't much substantial analysis to perform.

After the Access Rules work, Marshall was promoted to be my new boss in December, 1992; Mary Anne assumed responsibility of most rates-and-minutes analysis -- something I'd done in the past. I'd never been told that I'd performed this work poorly; but by late 1992, my work and input were increasingly challenged, ignored -- or dismissed.

That summer, Sharon Mullin became our manager; she asked the team (Mary Anne, José, Marshall and me) to make a list of the tasks and work we performed, in preparation for personal meetings with her.

I thought about how I might explain and work with my hearing loss, and how Sharon and I could work with it; this is something I have done with all new bosses. Yet Sharon never set up a meeting with me.

In December I learned she'd met with each of the other three; but despite my four or five attempts to meet with her, our meeting had never occurred. When Sharon told my wife at the department's Christmas party that none of us could expect to have our jobs in three months, I felt like I was living in a Franz Kafka novel.

In January, I had my review. I was downgraded from "Exceeds Expectations" to "Met Expectations." Sharon and her boss, Phil Gaddy, used the words "uneven" and "disappointing." Much of my qualitative docket work during a rate case was omitted. My "excellent computer skills" were noted and I was written to be "adept at pure quantitative analysis." (In prior conversations, Phil Gaddy had said bad things about people with computer skills; adding computer/quantitative skills comments in the review was not a compliment from Phil Gaddy -- he omitted the fact that the job Steve had hired me for was primarily computer work). My work to train others nationally is omitted. I am told to develop more knowledge in "qualitative" and "issue" areas. Included were comments that I might seek employment elsewhere "more suitable to my skills." Specifics were omitted.

Phil gave me one night to write my comments to the review. I stayed up late and produced five pages in an attempt to "correct" the review, working hard to keep my response as diplomatic as possible.

In our meeting the next day, I was mostly silent and took notes. Phil disputed most of my written comments, rationalizing his behavior during the year; to my written comments Sharon responded that she "was unaware of the impact of not meeting," that she thought "not meeting would not impact me." But the damage was done.

I assumed the negative effects of my managers' behavior were unintentional.

Picking up the Pieces

Before the review, I had the impression that my work had been good to excellent. After the review I was stunned. I was surprised and demoralized; I now had no confidence that my managers would do the right thing. As the environment became increasingly political and verbal, I missed out on more and more. It was time to seek assistance.

I knew I needed to train my managers; the review had shown they didn't understand what to do and, ignoring my input, had reached negative conclusions about my work. First, I needed to find solutions. I called the Travis County Council for the Deaf and was referred to the hard-of-hearing specialist, Ms. Lynette Pickens-Fant. This turned out to be an excellent start. I learned about accessory devices such as light ringers, light alarm detectors and transmitters and assistive listening devices. She also suggested some skills to use in improving my communication effectiveness.

A week later, I completed the homework for AT&T's class on Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and decided to use the training at work.

At the end of January I met with Marshall. He'd been made my new boss, I'd been relieved of my role as a boss, and the group's clerk, Nancy, whom I'd supervised since 1991, was reassigned to Mary Anne; no one consulted me beforehand.

At our meeting, Marshall agreed we should do something to help with my impairment. During the fall, I had been increasingly inundated by his and Sharon's speakerphone calls. (Before Sharon moved to the cube next to mine, and before Marshall's promotion, speakerphone calls had been rare). Sharon and Marshall shouted to each other over the cube wall regularly. Phil Gaddy is a loud person, too.

Ms. Pickens-Fant had confirmed my thought that folks using hearing aids should have a quiet work setting. I dealt with the noise by turning off my hearing aids. Listening to others' loud speakerphones or conversations with hearing aids causes my eyes to rattle from the vibration. I was now often forced to turn off my hearing aids in order to concentrate on my work. But when I turn off my ears, I miss phone calls, miss out on the talk around the cube. In the worst case, I wouldn't hear a fire alarm.

So, to apply the Seven Habits training, I "proactively" wrote up situations that were difficult to hear. Some were examples to shed light on my abilities; most applied to work. I met with José, Nancy and Mary Anne. Next I tried to meet with Sharon and Marshall with this information.

Those two, though, stalled for weeks. When I did meet with Marshall, it wasn't a friendly meeting. I was essentially told this was my problem to solve. He didn't see it as his role to pay for accommodations with our tight budget; my timing was bad, he said. When I pointed out that behavioral accommodations cost no money to implement -- that all we needed to implement them were nice attitudes -- Marshall replied that I "ask everyone to do everything and I do nothing myself."

I suggested we bring someone in to explain how to improve communication. We could pay for someone, I pointed out (that was rejected) or he could talk with my wife. He rejected that too, saying she'd be biased. Why had my accommodation requests never come up before, he asked. I explained that in the past Steve had compensated and helped; and I reminded him that the job had become more verbally oriented, with which he agreed.

When I met with Sharon, she told me that I might think about seeking employment more suited to my talents. (If all my bosses I'd ever had gave me these words of wisdom, I'd be unwelcome at all jobs! ) Sharon said she had problems controlling her spontaneity -- it was hard for her, she said, to be repeating words or slowing down to talk to me.

I discussed and presented alternative accommodations: I requested a flashing fire alarm and a light that flashes when the phone rings. I suggested captioning on speakerphone calls and either an assistive listening device or behavioral assistance in meetings.

But habits are hard to break. Marshall and Sharon continued to have loud speakerphone calls -- often the conversations seemed like shouting matches or unstoppable, loud group laughter.

Since early in the year, I'd opted out of speakerphone calls. Sitting through speakerphone calls is sometimes a terror to me: I can only bluff. I sit with the group and smile, but can't hear the calls very well. The alternative at the time --listening in with a handset -- didn't work. Talk is fast-paced, other callers use speakerphones and when our group converses with the "mute" button on, I miss our group's thoughts. But Marshall said they'd "done a lot" by allowing me to sit in my cube and use my handset. But this solution didn't work, I told him, adding that I'd tried to explain this before.

By April, Sharon and I had still not met to discuss my hearing loss -- it was now over six months since I'd asked to meet with her. On April 14, there was a group meeting to discuss 800 Database issues; it was a project the office had been working on. At the meeting I had trouble hearing people. At one point, Sharon repeated someone's words for me; but she did it too loud and too fast; I still couldn't understand. She asked if I had understood. I said simply that we "needed to discuss it later." There, in front of everyone, she retorted, "Well, what more could I do?"

Accommodations Wins and Losses

Finally, in May, I took a major step: I called the Hearings Supervisor at the Texas Public Utilities Commission. An important Commission meeting was coming up on a case I'd worked on since late 1991. I did not want to miss the hearings. Yet I knew that neither Marshall nor the AT&T Human Resources folks could act soon enough to get accommodations in place to let me follow the hearings with any real comprehension.

During a case a few years earlier, I had concentrated so hard trying to hear at the Public Utility Commission hearings that I'd nearly collapsed from exhaustion. I hadn't complained about this; I performed my job as best as possible. Looking back, I'm surprised I had the energy to drive home; but then, I was younger. In that case, we'd won almost all the points we made and gained a lot of money for AT&T.

So now I asked the Commission's hearings supervisor to provide court-reporter accommodations at the hearings. I knew that with a court reporter's words on the screen at the hearings, I'd have the perfect accommodation. By mid-June I had it all arranged: the court reporter was set up for the hearings.

Then Sharon told me she didn't want me to use these accommodations I'd set up.

Throughout the years I'd been working on this case, I'd been going to the PUC meetings and sitting up front. Now Sharon announced that my sitting in the front to view the court reporter's screen would be "undesirable." "We wouldn't want to draw attention to AT&T," was her explanation.

For several days, I thought about Sharon's actions and my feelings about it. Finally, I asked to meet with Marshall, Sharon and Phil. I told them that Sharon's words to me were "harmful." It reminded me of being treated like the freak in a freak show, I said. What Sharon was doing, I told them, was illegal.

But Sharon insisted she wasn't discriminating against me. She just didn't get it.

On July 8, the big Public Utilities Commission meeting I'd planned for occurred. But I was not told about it. I missed it.

Gallaudet to the Rescue

The National Center for Law and Deafness at Gallaudet University was an invaluable resource. The Travis County Council for the Deaf and the American Speech and Hearing Association helped me during this difficult period. The Job Accommodations Network pointed me to several hearing-device vendors and audiologists.

My recommendations for accommodations had changed little since March. The delays were unconscionable and my patience was reduced to setting deadlines, per advice from relatives, friends and my attorney. Throughout the ordeal, I'd said nothing to AT&T folks about my sources of advice, hoping to remain as diplomatic as possible. I prefer to assist folks in doing the right thing on their own. Besides, I figured I was in enough trouble as it was. There would be no point to revealing that I'd discussed this situation with all the professionals and friends I could count on.

Gradually, though, the accommodations began to be approved. In July, I moved my cube to a quieter spot. It was more isolated, but that didn't matter: I needed to be away from the loud people -- I'd been isolated before, anyway, and now I could concentrate better. Arrangements were being made for a sensitivity trainer to come in. I requested and received funding to attend the AT&T Hearing Impaired Employees' Conference in Atlanta. I felt we were on the road to success; I knew that we'd get the accommodations in place, despite the delays.

Finally, in August, AT&T's human resources department approved a free trial run with a certified court reporter for our meetings. This real-time captioning would permit me to "hear" on speakerphone calls for the first time. I could watch a laptop computer screen as it showed what was said on the call at the rate of 250 words per minute. Terry McGinty, the real-time captioner for the local ABC affiliate, donated her time. Ms. McGinty also had experience performing real-time for grand juries. The call was very sensitive -- we discussed issues surrounding a rate case stipulation in one of our states. This call was attended by AT&T's Government Affairs Department, its Legal Department, my department and others. We even had a state manager on the line from a Capitol building.

The real-time captioning accommodation was too good to last. In September, our Legal Department, invoking "attorney-client privilege" in a strange effort to maintain confidential communications, barred my real-time captioner from our meetings.

This behavior, I felt, was akin to barring a sign language or foreign language interpreter. I viewed this blocking of my access to speakerphone calls as a destructive action. I was really upset. All along I had acted in good faith to wait for the accommodations and this was what I got!

Gallaudet's representative couldn't believe it. The TCCD folks became pretty animated with the AT&T Legal Department's disregard for the law. It seemed AT&T's own attorneys were practicing conservative -- but illegal -- sloppy law. They didn't do their job. Still, AT&T's Human Resources representative stuck with the position of the Legal Department. In response, Gallaudet faxed me support papers on national policy and law. TCCD faxed me Texas law and policy. Their work eventually helped to reverse AT&T's Legal Department decision.

Throughout the attorney-client privilege impasse, the one governmental agency that did not help was the Texas Commission for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired, whose position was that they don't help hard-of-hearing people get real-time captioners but only sign language interpreters.

I'm Threatened!

During the course of 1993, I saw my work load diminish completely.

Since September, 1992, I'd had almost no work. It had gotten so bad that Marshall joked about giving me his "in-box" to get some work. By the end of May, I was indeed sorting Marshall's "in-box": in one year I'd gone from developing, testing and delivering a nationwide competitive analysis model for AT&T to clerking for my boss.

As the year progressed, Marshall and I spoke to each other less and less. Weeks, then months, passed where we didn't speak to each other at all. When we spoke, I felt that I was in the way, that I could do nothing constructive in his eyes. Based on the behavior Phil, Marshall and Sharon had exhibited to me for the past year, I reached the conclusion I was being resisted, ignored, delayed as well as harassed.

Whenever I had meetings with Sharon and Marshall, I'd try to bring up behavioral accommodations as a solution, to no avail. In September, I'd even sent a brief letter to Marshall's boss about the matter, but there was no change. Marshall and Sharon continued to treat me the same. I moved up the chain of command and wrote to AT&T Vice President Bill West, but he only booted me back down and told me I should have taken my concerns to Marshall's boss.

Marshall's approach began to make me feel as though we were in a labor-union negotiation session. At one point he ordered me to do a task, adding that if I didn't come up with a solution I'd be considered "insubordinate." That word was a loaded one: At AT&T, "insubordination" is grounds for immediate termination. To protect me, my attorney filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission just before Christmas. My wife and I spent Christmas wondering if I'd have a job after the holidays.


By March 1994, the accommodations AT&T had agreed to make were pretty much in place. I had a flashing fire alarm, a light ringer for the phone, an assistive listening device. There'd been sensitivity training that seemed to be working. Folks were making sure that I could hear. Human Resources had approved the use of the AT&T Relay for conference and speakerphone calls rather than the court reporter.

Relay's speed, at 25 words per minute, was way too slow to keep up. It was confusing, because I had to try to listen at the same time. Not having the court reporter put me further behind.

I'd already lost much of my work and responsibility. Without any chance to increase my responsibility and my effectiveness, my career was dead.

AT&T's "re-engineering" effort became a driving force. In June, Phil was telling all of us to polish our resumés and if an opportunity for a job with another company arose, to consider it.

I found an opportunity to end the discrimination and I took that opportunity. In October, I interviewed and was offered a job with another company, but I took significant pay and benefits cuts.

AT&T has had a tradition of serving the hard-of-hearing and Deaf communities. Their founder, Alexander Graham Bell, was an expert on deafness in his time. AT&T's Relay Service is the best in the country; their TTs are of exceptional quality. And recently the company has made an effort to honor and respect diversity in the workplace.

Yet during my last two years with AT&T, I felt discriminated against because of my hearing loss. Someone missed the points taught in Integrity, Leadership, Teamwork and Diversity classes. I don't think it was me.

As we were going to press, Dean Olson learned that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commis-sion had decided not to pursue his case, but would provide him with a "right to sue" letter, letting him hire his own attorney and bring suit against AT&T. Olson says such a suit would be extremely costly and time-consuming. He is currently weighing his options.

Dean Olson works as a database analyst for an insurance company.
He is donating the proceeds from this article to the
Albuquerque Chapter of Self-Help for Hard-of-Hearing People.

More ADA discrimination
Disabled nurses charge hospital with job bias

by Josie Byzek

Steve Lentner took time off his job as a registered nurse at Methodist Hospital in Gary, Indiana to deal with an attack of multiple sclerosis. He admitted himself to the hospital, but told his head nurse, Lori Valentino, he'd be back at work soon.

"She said, 'No, you won't, you're not coming back to this floor.' I told her about the ADA," says Lentner. "She said she didn't have to follow the ADA." That was 1993.

Lentner had been open with the personnel office when he'd applied for the job at Methodist back in the early '90s. They hired him fully aware that he had multiple sclerosis, and what that entailed, he says.

Today, Lentner still isn't working. "I haven't been able to get a job. As soon as they call Methodist, I never hear from them again."

Gloria Moreno was also honest with Methodist Hospital personnel when she applied for an RN job. She let them know she had a 25-lb. lifting restriction because of a car accident. They hired her in July, 1991, and everything went well, she says -- until she testified on behalf of her friend Betty, a co-worker with cancer, fired when she wore wigs to cover up her baldness. "Azrie [the head nurse on Moreno's floor] told me that's why she terminated Betty," says Moreno; later, at Betty's grievance hearing, Moreno testified as to what Azrie had told her.

Betty was reinstated. But co-workers warned Moreno "Azrie was going to get me because I testified."

Moreno injured her neck while on the job in 1992 -- an injury not related to her earlier car accident. After some time off, and some therapy, the doctor cleared her for work (and raised her lifting restriction from 25 to 50 lbs.).

But her head nurse refused to allow her to come back on the floor.

When Moreno obtained (through a friend in personnel) a copy of her job's "essential job qualifications," she learned Methodist required that RNs be "able to lift and manage 200 lbs." Moreno and Lentner both insist this requirement was never stated, either at the time of interview or at the time of hire.

In 1993, still not allowed back on her floor, Moreno asked to be transferred to another department. She was told she couldn't transfer, either. When she tried to file a grievance with the hospital about this denial, the hospital's employee advocate, she says, told her she "couldn't file for a transfer and be on medical leave at the same time." That fall, a Methodist Hospital lawyer verbally told Moreno that she was terminated for being disabled, but nothing official happened until April, 1994, she says, when she was officially fired.

Hispanic, disabled, whatever

Moreno says that, though a Methodist Hospital attorney told her outright she was fired because of her disability, when she first went to the Gary, Indiana Human Relations Commission, they advised her not to file a complaint based on her disability but instead to file as an Hispanic, telling her that "disability was included under the 'Hispanic' label," says Moreno.

That didn't sound right to Moreno. She called the Washington, D.C. offices of the EEOC. When they referred her back to her local EEOC enforcement agency, they indeed took her complaint as a disability case, investigated, and found that she had a right to take her case to federal court.

Since then, life has been hard. "I lost my house," says Moreno. "I'm on welfare and food stamps. Sky-high bills, the whole nine yards. I've been blackballed. I apply for a job, they check my references, next thing I know I have the Bubonic Plague. Several places told me they contacted Methodist Hospital, [then they] come back and say, 'we wouldn't hire you for nothing. You are a danger to yourself and to your patients.'

"It's been a living hell."

Methodist Hospital, called repeatedly by Ragged Edge for comment, did not return calls.

Moreno and Lentner both filed complaints with the Gary, Indiana Human Relations Commission, who in turn sent them to the state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where they were given the right to sue under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Moreno's case has already been heard in federal court; she's awaiting summary judgment. Lentner's trial is set for January.

Lentner says disability groups reminded him "you're not just fighting for yourself, you're fighting for everybody."

"So I said, 'OK; let's fight!'"


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