About a month ago, I was “temporarily disabled” – I could not move without severe abdominal pain. I was diagnosed with appendicitis and had to undergo emergency surgery to remove the offending organ because it had enlarged to roughly threefold the average size. During the recovery, I was bedridden and under the constant care of the medical staff. Fortunately, that brief detour had a favorable outcome but served as a stark reminder that we are all fragile by nature and can quickly become disabled at a moment’s notice. Since then, I have devised a plan to commit to IBM’s Five Dimensions of Health religiously to ensure I have a healthy work-life balance. No, I’m serious, my wife was happy to hear about it.
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Living with a disAbility
My recent experience is not comparable to the near-fatal bout with meningitis that rendered me profoundly deaf when I was a toddler. After surviving the brush with death that lasted for more than a month, I woke up with profound hearing loss. My parents were relieved but grieving and without the faintest idea how to raise a deaf child. With their steadfast support and a fierce will to succeed, I was able to build a robust language foundation and far-reaching knowledge through sign language. I learned to embrace my identity as a deaf person in a world without sound while adapting to the hearing world that is not always as welcoming and compatible as it should be. That is why I am grateful that we have observations such as International Day of Persons with Disabilities, commemorated on December 3rd by the United Nations since 1992, to help promote awareness and advocate for landscape improvements for the vulnerable population worldwide.
“I often forget I am deaf”
I am proud to be an IBMer working for a company that has been a champion of employees with disabilities for over a century. Embedded in IBM’s DNA is the culture of inclusion and a genuine desire to break down accessibility barriers. At IBM, requesting accommodations is both encouraged and a breeze. The availability of resources such as on-site and remote sign language interpreting services and captioning services have the profound effect that my colleagues and I often forget I am deaf. I am able to do my job productively, and my capabilities are extended continuously and without restriction.
Reflecting, celebrating and moving forward
Because of my deafness, I see the world differently from my colleagues and can make technical and innovative contributions from angles not usually considered. For example, thanks to my total dependency on captions to access videos, I regularly reach out to Watson Media and share specific suggestions and research for improving automatic captions and their appearance. I also view the ability to focus entirely on the tasks at hand, especially the complex ones, without being distracted by noisy surroundings or streams of chatter as a sweet side benefit. Regardless, much work remains to be done to help level the playing field for everyone living with a disability, and the annual international observation is a day for reflection, celebration and ensuring we have the correct bearings as we move toward a world of equality and inclusiveness.
(Image Description: Erich addresses participants at the AI Fairness for People with Disabilities workshop on Oct 4th in Cambridge, MA) Before October gets away from me, I wanted to recognize and appreciate IBM’s rich history & culture of real inclusion. When a company implements small-but-meaningful practices, rather than just tracking the general diversity numbers of […]
After spending my sophomore and junior years working on assistive technology projects with Northwestern University’s Inclusive Technology Lab, the opportunity to explore accessibility research at IBM was an exciting introduction into the industry. I worked on everything from server configuration to front-end development to design research interviews. This broad range of experience made for a […]
National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is nearing its halfway point, and we would like to reflect on its theme of “America’s Workforce: Empowering All.” For more than 100 years, IBM has embodied that theme by practicing disability inclusion. While there is (always) still work to be done, we are excited and awed by what […]