Deaf On the Job
At The Washington Post Deaf workers were employed in several areas: the press room, where large presses processed ink and paper forming newspapers; the mail room, where complete newspapers were bundled and loaded for distribution; the composing room where the components of the paper were typed and pages laid out and engraved for printing; and ad services, where the ads were composed and approved for publication. The vast majority of Deaf workers were found in the composing room.
Subs and Slipboard:
Since the end of the nineteenth century the printing industry has managed the need for skilled workers and variable printing demands using a system of seniority-based employee lists. As newspapers needed to expand and contract their workforce to meet production, they used a combination of regular and irregular workers. This necessitated careful management of skilled workers across several shifts each day. At The Washington Post, the slipboard organized the lists of qualified printers in order of seniority.
Posted outside the composing room, workers indicated their availability at the start of the shift and waited to be assigned work by the foreman. At the appointed time, the foreman would review the list of workers, determining how much coverage would be needed for the shift. Those at the top of the list were given priority in work assignment, and newer printers at the bottom awaited placement.
A regular employee, known as a “sit” or situation holder, was guaranteed to have a position each day. Temporary workers, known as “subs,” waited as the foreman delegated roles according to priority. Subs did not have any guarantee for work when they showed up for a shift. However, the work of producing a daily newspaper required plenty of skilled workers and flexible subs were likely to work regularly if they preferred. In some cases, subs waited for more than one shift before they were assigned work.
This fixed system of job assignment ensured that Deaf printers received equitable treatment at work. The emphasis on priority in job assignment prohibited favoritism or the unequal treatment of some printers based on gender, race, or hearing status. The public slipboard and sub lists provided a visual indication of one’s employment status and standing amongst coworkers, both hearing and Deaf. The use of substitute workers offered a great deal of flexibility for Deaf workers as well. Printers were not required to communicate absences or vacations with supervisors in advance, removing another barrier to employment.
Qualified printers obtained work in newspaper shops beginning as subs. As a union shop, The Washington Post permitted new printers to deposit their union card, and begin working. After a period of two weeks, during which the printer acclimated to the work environment at the Post, they completed an assessment of their skills.
The dupe permitted Deaf workers to stand on the quality of their work. Whether performing a dupe as a linotype operator or a floorman, all prospective employees were given the same assessment requirements. In addition to the support of union protection, Deaf printers benefitted from the guidance of Deaf coworkers in meeting the requirements of this skills assessment.
Workplace Communication Strategies:
Though hearing employees consistently outnumbered Deaf employees at The Washington Post, the large number of Deaf people working across multiple shifts created a context unlike employment experiences elsewhere. In history there are few examples of population dynamics of this nature. These contexts have often produced unique social and linguistic characteristics in which hearing people adopted visual communication strategies and sign language forms with greater facility. As a result, Deaf people experienced greater social integration within those communities.
Daily contact between Deaf and hearing printers over decades of employment at The Washington Post offers some insight on the ways in which workers negotiated language and cultural barriers in the workplace.
Across workspaces, multiple communication strategies were employed by Deaf and hearing printers. For work-related tasks, gestures and body language were often utilized by workers and supervisors. Given that Deaf and hearing workers operated with a shared understanding of the tools and techniques required for work, pointing or miming appear to have been a useful strategy for immediately resolving some pressing workplace concerns.
In other situations, workers relied on one another to facilitate communication. Some Deaf and hard of hearing printers served as interpreters for their coworkers, using a combination of lipreading, speech, and sign language to facilitate more complex conversations between their peers. This strategy would have expanded the subjects exchanged between parties. In particular this appears to have been implemented in discussions regarding scheduling, training on new technology, and in resolving workplace disputes.
Prolonged contact with Deaf coworkers encouraged some hearing employees to learn American Sign Language (ASL) terms for work-related concepts. In the late 1980s, The Washington Post offered structured training in basic ASL to hearing employees. These classes were the product of changing ideas about sign language that occurred at the end of the 20th century. A short distance from The Washington Post at Gallaudet College, William C. Stokoe, PhD, Professor of English began to investigate sign language in the 1960s and came to recognize it as a language, and not a mode of communication, with specific morphology, syntax, and other structural features of language. Stokoe, who was hearing, collaborated with Deaf researchers Dorothy C. Casterline and Carl G. Croneberg, on the 1965 publication of A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, that provided academic legitimacy for ASL as a language. As mainstream America began to see ASL in the public sphere through plays, art, and other avenues, sign language classes came into demand in the 1970s.
The use of sign language interpreters was not standard practice in the United States until the end of the twentieth century. For most of history, Deaf people have improvised communication strategies with hearing peers, drawing on hearing and hard-of-hearing relatives, friends, and neighbors to aid in communication access. The professionalization of sign language interpreters began in the 1960s with the establishment of the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf. Over the following decades there was an expansion of training programs in ASL interpreting, a formal certification process, and a formalization of a code of ethics which increased the protections and privacy for Deaf clients. Major legislation in the 1970s and 1990s framed ASL interpretation as a workplace accommodation and language access for Deaf people has increasingly been viewed as a civil rights issue.
While social attitudes about communication access were changing in the final decades of the twentieth century, acceptance of interpreters on shop floors was not immediate. Though the interpersonal communication strategies used by Deaf and hearing printers demonstrated consideration for the use of sign language at work, hearing supervisors and coworkers were slow to accept that professional interpreters were a necessary accommodation. One aspect of this resistance came from Union leaders who were concerned about maintaining the confidentiality of meetings. At monthly union meetings, known as Chapel meetings, union leaders prevented the use of outside interpreters. Other examples of resistance came from those who casually questioned the necessity of interpreters or expressed skepticism about their use.
The use of interpreters at the Post appears to have coincided with the appointment of Deaf printers to leadership positions in the composing room. Now tasked with communicating between multiple divisions at the paper and across shifts, interpreters were occasionally utilized to facilitate phone calls or for important meetings. However, it was rare for an interpreter or pair of interpreters to shadow Deaf workers for the duration of ones’ shift. This targeted application of professional interpreters expanded access to information for both Deaf supervisors and printers alike. Deaf printers recall that this changed workplace dynamics as they gained fuller access to workplace information and casual conversations with coworkers.
Communication access was an ongoing negotiation for Deaf printers at the Post. They continued to advocate for the use of trained interpreters and over time began to participate in Union meetings and workplace activities on a more equal footing with their hearing counterparts. However, resistance to the use of interpreters, whether driven by costs or a skepticism of their utility, reveal the ways in which Deaf printers were not treated equally at work. At the same time the episode also reflects the solidarity of Deaf printers to one another. Deaf printers played a pivotal role in obtaining and exchanging information between coworkers. This campaign for interpreters reveals how Deaf printers advocated for themselves and each other at work.
Though Deaf printers often recalled a shared sense of community with their Deaf and hearing coworkers, some identified instances of unequal treatment. The vast majority of supervisory positions were held by hearing men. While some adopted visual communication strategies with Deaf employees, barriers to meaningful communication contributed to misunderstandings and marginalization.
Certain tasks in the composing room were more strenuous than others. In particular the loading and unloading of metal carts weighed down with heavy lead pages was a laborious task.
Supervisors assigned the carts, known as trucks, somewhat arbitrarily and some Deaf compositors acknowledged that Deaf employees were frequently selected for the work. Due to communication barriers, Deaf floormen were unlikely to complain or challenge the assignment directly. However, Deaf printers did intercede on behalf of one another, calling upon the protection of Union membership to demand equal treatment.
Gender was another important issue in print shops in the United States. Although the International Typographical Union accepted women as equal members in 1869, they were often denied experiences as apprentices in shops or offered lower wages than male printers throughout the nineteenth century. Industrial training in printing trades was largely reserved for men well into the twentieth century. In newspapers and other print shops around the country, women printers were largely outnumbered by men.
Among the printers at The Washington Post, Deaf women acknowledged these dynamics. While they experienced barriers to socialization with their male coworkers, the number of Deaf women working at the Post permitted the formation of unique social circles. Guided by training opportunities and social practices, relatively few Deaf women worked in hot metal linotype operation, instead working as teletypesetters, Ray Comp and other typewriting technologies.
Deaf Leadership Opportunities:
While supervisory positions were largely held by hearing men, at the end of the twentieth century, greater opportunities for advancement were available for Deaf men and women at The Washington Post. The large number of printers employed at the Post was managed by a hierarchy of supervisors: the shift supervisor, the shift foreman, the assistant superintendent and the superintendent.
Printers were under the immediate oversight of a shift supervisor. Roughly six people held this position across the 24 hour work day, with multiple shift supervisors available during the evening and Lobster shifts. These individuals were responsible for communicating between departments to ensure the work was done and the paper went out. They also worked directly to assist printers in their tasks. The shift foreman oversaw the work of the shift supervisor and managed disciplinary issues and other concerns. The assistant superintendent and superintendent oversaw the four shift foremen, managed the budget and communicated with the executive team.
By the end of the 1980s more Deaf printers were advanced to leadership positions within this structure. Working as a supervisor shifted the dynamics of communication for Deaf and hearing workers at The Post. Deaf printers would have full access to instructions and assignments delivered in ASL.
As more Deaf printers advanced to supervisory positions, the use of interpreters became more commonplace. Although not present for every shift, interpreters enabled supervisors to communicate across shifts and workspaces at The Post to resolve issues of scheduling, technology, and staffing.
The Post was a unique work environment that was seldom found elsewhere. The high number of deaf employees - approximately 125 - created a workplace of camaraderie and pride with newspapers being put out day after day. ITU membership offered stable employment and the union protected its workers. Communication barriers remained, however, as not everyone signed and Deaf employees improvised different ways to communicate including speaking, lipreading, gestures, writing down on paper, and Deaf people interpreting for others before the professionalization of interpreting emerged.
For a list of sources used, see Works Consulted.