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Hearing impaired find niche

A computer doesn't care if its operator can hear. And you don't have to speak to talk to a computer.

For those reasons, the proliferation of computers has created job opportunities for many hearing-impaired people.

Employers are discovering that being hearing impaired is no handicap, and can be an advantage, when working with computers.

"We see more and more deaf people entering computer-related fields," said Charles Estes, executive director of the National Association of the Deaf.

"It's been going on for years now," he said through an interpreter. "The success of deaf people begets more success."

Before computers, many hearing-impaired people had jobs in the printing industry, where they often worked with noisy Linotype machines. The noise didn't distract them from their complicated job of setting type.

"There was a time in the newspapering field when deaf people in the composing room was a very common sight," Estes said. "Although the Linotype was the most complicated piece of equipment in the composing room, it was an area of work that deaf people excelled at."

Typesetting by Linotype has been replaced by the computer _ another complicated machine where being hearing impaired can be an advantage.

"They (employers) recognize they are getting more for their money with a deaf person," particularly on jobs dealing with computers, said Winfield McChord Jr., executive director of the American School for the Deaf.

McChord said hearing-impaired people are not as easily distracted by the noises around them and, therefore, are better able to concentrate.

Many hearing-impaired people have trouble with English because it is their second language. American Sign Language is their first, educators said. But English is not as important for many computer-related jobs.

"Deaf people have always had problems with their own native language," Estes said. But with computers "you don't have to worry about numbers and tenses and metaphors and similes."

In addition, McChord said, studies have shown there is a barely audible drone in a room where many people are using computers.

That drone has a hypnotic effect on hearing people.

"Their productivity as the day goes on decreases," he said. Employers must give them more breaks to keep them alert. That is not true of hearing-impaired employees, he said.

"That drone is not trying to seduce them into sleep," he said.

Achieving success in the work place

Maria Santiago, 25, of Clearwater doesn't get sleepy at her job at Vanco Instruments in Clearwater. Miss Santiago is hearing impaired and works as a data-entry operator at the company, which makes hearing aids. She started working there two years ago as a file clerk. Now she does many jobs at the small Clearwater company.

"She is a whiz," said Tom Mitchell, the company's president. "The reality to my way of thinking is that she is not disturbed by her surroundings."

It took a while, but Miss Santiago and other workers have no trouble communicating, she said.

"We communicate and understand each other well _ no problem," she said. Sometimes they write notes or type notes on the computer. Sometimes the message is almost telepathic, other workers said.

Alyse B. Hoffman, job placement specialist at St. Petersburg Junior College's program for the deaf, said she has helped about 120 hearing-impaired students find jobs. About 30 percent were hired in computer-related jobs, she said. That percentage is growing.

But not all work in computer programing. Many were placed in professions that rely heavily on computers, such as accounting, word processing and computer-aided drafting.

Doyle Wingard, 25, of Tampa works in Pasco County for Reimelt Corp., which designs storage and baking machinery for large baking companies.

"I work in drafting on the CAD (computer-aided design) computer," he said. "We draw the pictures and explain how these parts would work."

Wingard has been interested in computers since the first time he worked with one in high school.

"Most of my (hearing-impaired) friends want to work with computers," he said.

And in New York, where he attended the Rochester Institute of Technology, "many students got jobs working with computers, and they are very happy," Wingard said.