After we corresponded by email a few times earlier this month, Suzanne Robitaille suggested I call her on the phone one afternoon to talk. For most people I work with as a freelance writer, that would be a pretty unremarkable suggestion. But it’s only been 10 years or so that Robitaille has been able to use a conventional telephone. She is legally deaf, and in 2002, she received a cochlear implant that artificially restored much of her hearing in one ear.
Before her surgery, Robitaille could only use a cumbersome TTY device in her work as a journalist, a special challenge in the era before email became ubiquitous. In those years, she worked for the Wall Street Journal and for Businessweek, where she wrote a column on assistive technology.
In 2009, Robitaille launched a blog about disability issues, which led to the creation of abledbody & co., a consultancy in which she works with companies engaging the disability community. Ablebody works with clients including the Think Beyond the Label campaign, which makes the case for businesses to hire people with disabilities. The campaign is working with the Brazen Careerist on an online job fair for people with disabilities on October 16. Robitaille spoke with me recently — by regular old telephone — about employers’ misconceptions about hiring disabled job applicants, her advice for navigating the hiring process if you have a disability, and what it was like to have people hang up on her early in her career.
Can you start by telling me a little bit about your career path before you started Ablebody?
I started as a journalist, and I went to journalism school and began my career right when the dot-com boom began. … Before my cochlear implant, I did everything with a TTY. People would hang up on me, it just wasn’t working. … Once I got the implant, I could hear. Not overnight — it took about a year — but it changed my life.
With the TTY phone, you type what you want to say, and then an operator reads it to the person on the other end of the line?
It’s horrible. It’s kind of extinct now because of VOIP and text messaging. You can do more over the Internet, which makes things different from even eight years ago. That’s why I’m such a big supporter of assistive technology. … Using Google voicemail I can even get my voicemail transcribed.
Did people really hang up on you when you used the TTY phone?
If you go back to the Wall Street Journal in 2000, there was a lot of phone work involved in that particular position. I was able to convince them to put me in the overnight shift because I had the Asian experience [Robitalle had an internship in Hong Kong], because I couldn’t be on the phone. But they wouldn’t have hired me for a daytime shift [where she would have had to spend more time on the phone]. I’m grateful for every opportunity, but there are limits.
What was your experience in the job market like back then?
I didn’t put that I had a disability on my resume. I don’t recommend people do that. I would wait until I’m in the interview and meet the person I’m interviewing with. At Fortune 5000 companies, the HR manager reveals the kind of company it is. You get a sense of whether a company is open-minded and willing to make an accommodation and support someone with a disability. When I worked at McGraw Hill, which owned Businessweek … they were really helpful to me.
Whereas AmEx really didn’t do much. I had a difficulty at AmEx at once point. They have proprietary instant messaging software, but they wouldn’t let us use it, and I had to petition the IT department to come install it so I didn’t have to pick up the phone every time I wanted to [contact my employees] … So you can tell what kinds of companies are going to support you. You do your research about what the company values. They have to accommodate you by law, but it’s one thing to do right by the law and another thing to be cool about it.