A hand up, not a handout

By Sara Moore DLA Public Affairs

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When she wanted to level the playing field for her deaf employees, Debra Simpson was surprised to find “there’s an app for that.”

Simpson, the program analysis master planning branch chief for Defense Logistics Agency Energy, is leading the effort to implement a tablet- and desktop-based remote interpretive service for deaf employees. The service, which is in testing at DLA Headquarters, functions as an application and launches at the touch of a button, bringing up a sign language interpreter for a live video chat.

“There aren’t many things you can do in your career that make an incredible difference, but just the absolute joy, if you will, when my employees got to test this application; they were so ecstatic,” Simpson said. “I was able to give them opportunities to go places with me that they were never able to before.”

The idea to use this service, called virtual remote interpreting, came when Simpson was fuels branch chief in DLA Finance and had three deaf employees. These employees were fantastic, she said, but communication was becoming a barrier to their success and advancement.

“My communication skills were lacking to help them,” she said. “I found that in what I would consider a pretty fast-paced, difficult job, I wasn’t giving them the guidance that they needed, because I would have to spend hours writing emails.”

To avoid having to use email as a primary form of communication and to allow for impromptu meetings when physical interpreters might not be available, Simpson looked for a solution. She found it in VRI, an on-demand sign language interpreting service that gives employees the flexibility to communicate throughout the workplace.

“The minute I saw this thing, I said we have to get this tool,” Simpson said. “We have to have this for our employees; not just for them, but for me as a supervisor, because it saves me an enormous amount of time to have the conversation, but also for their own careers.”

Simpson brought the idea to her supervisors, who suggested she take it to DLA Finance Director Tony Poleo for his endorsement and financial backing. She demonstrated VRI to Poleo, who was very impressed and immediately got on board to help bring it to DLA.

“My initial reaction was, ‘What a great idea, and why have we not already done this?’” said Poleo, who also serves as the Department of Defense representative to the AbilityOne commission.

Poleo said his work with the commission, which creates employment opportunities for people with disabilities through federal contracts, has made him more aware of the barriers they face in the workplace.

“There’s a saying within that community that people with disabilities don’t want a handout, they just want a hand up,” Poleo said. “There’s a huge perception challenge that these folks face on top of their disability. So, when I see opportunities to change that perception, I take advantage of them and do just that.”

With Poleo’s backing, Simpson began working to get the service implemented at DLA. She worked with Richie Busigo in DLA Information Operations, the Equal Employment Opportunity office and DLA Acquisition to identify the right service provider and the way forward. Deputy Director of DLA Information Operations Robert Foster also endorsed the project, and he and Poleo helped solve any issues that arose and provided support to keep the process moving quickly.

After an initial estimate that was quite expensive, the team regrouped and discovered that there was a federal video relay contract funded by Department of Defense that would be no cost to DLA, Simpson said. That trial has been ongoing for more than a month, with three employees in DLA Finance sharing a tablet, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive, she said.

“We were able to have an impromptu staff meeting, they were able to learn and get training, but more importantly, they were able to share their knowledge with the rest of us,” Simpson said of the employees testing the service. “It's been fantastic. The system has worked so very well for them. I’m glad I had a part in it. To hear them tell me ‘Thank you,’ it didn’t matter that it took me 18 months to get it here; we’re getting it here.”

Jon Mowl, a business analyst in DLA Finance, is one of the employees testing the service. The biggest benefits he sees from having a sign language interpreter at his fingertips are the mobility and responsiveness he now has in the workplace, he said. A quick meeting with the team or discussion with his supervisor about a project are now no big deal, he noted, whereas before those things would require a request in advance for an interpreter, handwritten notes, email or some other time-consuming alternative.

“It’s just been unbelievable the number of meetings that happen in just one month’s testing and how much information is being at such a fast pace,” Mowl said through a VRI interpreter. “Even a simple meeting, 10 minutes or something at the end of the day, to do a quick chat about a report or something, it just makes a huge difference in my ability to do my job.”

Mowl noted that the VRI interpreters are very good with precise DLA-specific terminology and language, and having them available throughout the day makes it easier for him to meet deadlines and get information to his fellow employees.

“This is a great tool for the deaf community to use,” he said. “It’s opening up doors for us, for the deaf people.”

Opening doors and providing opportunities for deaf employees is a key benefit of this service, both for the employees and the agency, Poleo said. Leaders, hiring managers and fellow employees who have never experienced life with a disability can easily confuse the disability with the intellect, he said, or can be nervous about the communication barriers that may arise when working with a deaf person.

“I think from a human resources standpoint, we’re shortchanging the agency on a lot of talent we could be hiring or retaining if we just provide what amounts to what I think is a pretty simple accommodation in the big scheme: we give somebody a tablet and pay for a service,” he said. “As accommodations go, that’s pretty straightforward.”

The long-term goal is to provide tablets to all deaf employees in DLA, who number about 120-140, Simpson said, and install a desktop-based application for those employees, their supervisors, teammates and all those they communicate with regularly. The service will ultimately provide savings to the agency, she said, because it is paid for per minute rather than in established time blocks like interpreters who work in DLA facilities. Even with all its advantages, this service is not going to replace those live interpreters, who serve an important function, she stressed. However, it will provide another tool for these employees, their supervisors and peers.

“This gives us the opportunity to make sure that we’re all on the same sheet of music,” she said. “That’s so important to me, especially as a supervisor. You want all your employees on the same train that you’re on and going the same direction. This made sure that we were able to do that quickly.”

Poleo said he is anxious to get VRI implemented throughout DLA, because he has already seen how it has benefitted the testing group, boosting their confidence and expanding their opportunities. He also noted that widespread use of the service might encourage deaf employees who are apprehensive about their disabilities to be more willing to seek out assistance.

“I just want everyone to have an opportunity to be successful,” Poleo said.

The effort to get VRI for employees across the agency is one example of how the agency is accomplishing Goal Area 2 of the DLA Strategic Plan (linked), which aims to "hire, develop and retain a high-performing, valued, resilient and accountable workforce that delivers sustained mission excellence."