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Learning Sign Language Bonds Team with Deaf Co-Worker

A group of people sitting in a room and playing with their phones.
This is the third in a series of articles about working with different workplace populations. This article examines the inclusive strategies used by one employer who hired an employee who is deaf.

When Kamal Nasser interviewed for an AT&T warehouse associate job in Hilliard, Ohio, his interpreter came along.

Nasser is completely deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate.

"I really didn't know what to expect going into an interview with someone [who's] deaf," said Jason McGonigle, then-manager of AT&T's DirecTV warehouse, in a company video.

"By the end of the interview, I felt I didn't even need the interpreter," he said, noting that the interpreter sat behind McGonigle to ensure that McGonigle maintained eye contact with Nasser. "I could tell, based off his mannerisms and facial expressions, what he was trying to say."

McGonigle left the interview convinced Nasser was the best person for the job. His boss, who also met with Nasser, concurred.

Nasser is one of more than 28 million Americans who are deaf or who have a hearing impairment, according to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a free service of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

While some employers think people with hearing impairments will create safety hazards for themselves or others, will increase employment costs, or will have difficulty communicating in fast-paced environments, they can be effective and safe workers—with or without reasonable accommodations—the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes on its website.

McGonigle acknowledged that, prior to interviewing Nasser, safety was his biggest concern in an environment that had heavy equipment such as forklifts. However, the Hilliard facility—like most warehouses, he said—already took precautions such as using flashing lights on forklifts and providing employees with safety vests that make them highly visible. Nasser did not request any accommodations before or after he was hired, such as a portable assistive listening system, but McGonigle had a flashing light installed to signal arrivals at the warehouse door for Nasser's benefit.

In March 2016, Nasser became a part of McGonigle's three-member team, which restocks the warehouse and processes equipment orders for the technicians who install DirecTV in homes throughout Ohio.

Making It Work

After safety, communication was McGonigle's other concern. He hired an interpreter for Nasser's job orientation but opted not to rely on the interpreter beyond that day.

"I wanted to learn how to appropriately communicate with Kamal" without relying on someone else, he said. He also knew he had to find a way for his team to communicate directly with Nasser.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing an Accessible Workplace]

Nasser does not read lips, so McGonigle's team initially used a whiteboard to communicate. McGonigle also created laminated cards with pictures of the more than 40 warehouse tools and other inventory that his team provides to the nearly 100 AT&T technicians at the warehouse.

"The whiteboard was extremely helpful in the beginning," McGonigle said, but it had limitations. English is Nasser's third language, after Arabic and ASL, and sometimes "we would have a [language] barrier because he wouldn't know exactly what I was trying to communicate."

McGonigle knew there had to be a better way.

"Part of me didn't feel comfortable [communicating] through an interpreter or through a whiteboard. I wanted to hold some deeper conversations if at all possible," he said. Nasser taught his co-workers some words—and their names—in ASL, but McGonigle wanted to learn more. With his supervisor's permission, he took a 10-week ASL course. It sparked his idea to have his team memorize—and sign—the company's 27-word safety creed.

Using ASL websites, and with Nasser's help, McGonigle and his team translated the creed. The experience turned into a fun, competitive team-building exercise as co-workers vied with each other to be the first to memorize and sign the creed. By the end of the day everyone could recite—and sign—it word for word.

"When we came together as a team … it made it much easier to learn," McGonigle said.

Nasser said he was ecstatic at their interest.

"They wanted to learn sign language—all the members, all the staff—and we took the time to do it and we learned it quickly. My self-esteem went way up," he said through an interpreter in the AT&T video.

At previous jobs where communication had been an issue, Nasser had resorted to either bringing an interpreter to work or using paper and pen, he noted in an e-mail.

An Important Skill

McGonigle is now manager of network services for AT&T in Columbus, Ohio. He plans to take more ASL courses and incorporate what he learns into his career. And he is teaching his 3-year-old daughter and her 10-month-old sister ASL because he thinks it's an important skill. Nasser said he is teaching his new boss ASL and continues to teach his colleagues to sign.

The experience at the AT&T warehouse is one of numerous examples of workplaces learning ASL to better communicate with a co-worker, according to Susan L. Murad, director of public relations and technology transfer at Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y.

"Often, our deaf alumni go into a workplace and their colleagues ask to learn sign [language], taking their lunch hours or off-the-clock time to do so," she said in an e-mail.

McGonigle urged employers looking to fill a position to "really, truly look at the individual … and make the [hiring] decision based on the company needs. It was clear … that Kamal was the most qualified [candidate] out of all of them," he told SHRM Online.

"Would it have been easier to hire the second-best candidate? Maybe, but it would have been wrong," McGonigle wrote in a February 2017 blog post for AT&T. "He's smart. He's passionate. He's a hard worker. He's an all-around great guy. And he represents the value of a diverse and inclusive work culture."

Nasser taught him, he said in the video, that "it's actually a lot easier to communicate with him than you may think."

Read the first and second  installments of this series.  

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