What Would You Do If You Saw Someone Discriminate Against a Deaf Job Applicant?

Hidden cameras reveal bystanders' reactions when discrimination is staged.

Feb. 2, 2011 — -- Two young women walk into a coffee shop to apply for a job in the kitchen when something strange happens: the manager seems oddly reluctant to let them fill out an application. Then, in full view of customers, out it comes: the real reason the manager isn't interested in hiring them? They are deaf.

It's a shocking violation of the law, or it would be if this weren't an episode of "What Would You Do?" The manager and the deaf job applicants are actors. Of course the customers don't know that. How will they respond to a display of the kind of discrimination this country outlawed two decades ago?

Click here to watch the full episode.

This special WWYD was developed with the help of students and administrators at the Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf, in Rochester, N.Y. It is the world's first and largest technical college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

In an interview at the college, student Brenna DeBartolo said, "I have a lot of respect for people who aren't deaf, for people who are hearing. At the same time, it would be nice for them to think about, 'What is it like to be a deaf person?' I mean, how would they like to go into a place and want to apply for a job and then be discriminated against just because of who you are?"

Although they're still in college, many NTID students already have an idea of the difficulties they may face in the workplace. Maya Ariel told WWYD that when she applied for part-time jobs in the past, "one or two places never called me back."

"From what I found out, they didn't call me back because I was deaf," she said, speaking thorough a sign language interpreter.

Hannah Worek's parents are deaf. "My dad right now, he doesn't have a job," Worek said. "He got laid off. He's been looking for jobs and it's hard because you have to get an interpreter every time you do an interview."

The new president of NTID, Gerry Buckley, explains how employers are supposed to treat a deaf or hard-of-hearing job applicant (or any disabled applicant, for that matter).

"What should happen is that that deaf or hard-of-hearing person has an equal opportunity to apply for the job, just like any person. The supervisor or the employer … interviews them with the same kind of questions and scrutiny that they interview anyone," he said.

The employer should "really look very specifically at their skills, related to being able to perform the work functions," Buckley said. "Questions related to accommodations or costs associated with accommodations should be set aside (to) focus on whether the person has the skills to do the job."

Discrimination Against Deaf Applicant

NTID is proud of its nearly 90 percent job placement record for graduates. It's hard enough finding and keeping a job in today's economy, but for those with a disability it is especially difficult. In January, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that allegations of workplace discrimination hit an all-time high in 2010. The biggest increase came in claims from workers who say they were discriminated against because of a disability.

It's a problem many thought had become history more than 20 years ago when President George H. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990. The ADA says if a worker with a disability is qualified to perform the essential functions or duties of a job, even if they require reasonable accommodation, they are protected from job discrimination.

Discrimination against the disabled is usually hidden. It may happen behind closed office doors, or even in the mind of the employer who doesn't want to follow the law. But two decades after the passage of the ADA, we wondered how regular people would respond if they could see the law flouted right in front of them. So with the owner's permission, we outfitted SmartWorld Coffee in Morristown, N.J. with hidden cameras and waited for the morning rush.

As the WWYD scenario got underway, NTID students Hannah Worek and Maya Ariel played our job applicants. Another WWYD actor played the discriminating manager of a coffee shop in need of a kitchen worker. When the women walked into the shop and asked for an application, the manager blatantly announced he wasn't hiring any deaf people.

"I'm not going to hire a deaf person. I'm just letting you know. So we'll save you some time. … I mean you're deaf, it's going to be really hard for you to work here," he said.

Many customers looking on told us afterwards they were shocked. Some said they planned to raise the issue later with the store owner. As the scene repeated again and again throughout the day, some customers stared, rolled their eyes, or grimaced, but few openly objected to the outright discrimination they witnessed.

One striking exception was customer Gerald Tourgee. When he saw what was happening, he turned to the manager and said, "Excuse me, are you aware of the Equal Employment Opportunity laws? You just made a blanket statement about not hiring a deaf person. You've made it very clear you're not hiring a deaf person. ... If she takes the job and she's not able to fulfill the duties, that's a different situation. But not to hire her because she's deaf, that's absolutely discriminatory!"

Discrimination Against Deaf Applicant

After a long day of too many customers looking the other way, the outburst was welcomed by our actors. But other responses were less kind-hearted and some might shock you. Watch Friday night to see the surprising reactions of some people who are supposed to be employment experts: human resource workers and job recruiters.

For More Information

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Click here to find more details about the Americans with Disabilities Act from the EEOC.