February 2006 
Volume 04, Issue 9 
Main Feature

Berry smart

Berry smart

Boeing Winnipeg boosts communication with deaf employees

In true Boeing style, a recent communication challenge at subsidiary Boeing Winnipeg was met with a combination of teamwork and technology. That solution enhanced communications with deaf teammates at the facility. It also helped Winnipeg expedite processes, develop its work force—and earn a Global Diversity Process Improvement Award.

The Canadian facility, part of Boeing Fabrication, builds wing-to-body fairings, thrust reverser blocker doors and engine strut forward and aft fairings for Commercial Airplanes. It has 20 deaf employees on its staff of 1,000. This higher-than-usual proportion has resulted in several initiatives to improve communication, including strobe lighting used in conjunction with evacuation alarm bells, American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter contractors and closed captioning on training videos.

But despite these amenities, daily communication remained difficult. "If they wanted to get hold of me," said 777 Forward/Aft/Ducts Manager Barbara Wilkinson, "they'd have to write something down for a hearing person and that person would have to phone me."

A solution came from Winnipeg's Deaf Issues Committee. Tooling Technician Marty Rabu, a deaf member of the committee, told the group that the college where his sister-in-law works had distributed BlackBerrys to its deaf employees. The BlackBerry is a handheld device providing e-mail, text messaging, Internet access, mobile telephone and other wireless services.

Terry Trupp, the committee's Communications representative, brought the idea to the Winnipeg leadership team. Rabu and another deaf employee tried out two BlackBerrys for a week; after the satisfactory demo, Boeing Winnipeg provided devices and training to the rest of its deaf population.

By spring 2004, about six months after the idea was proposed, the BlackBerrys were in regular use. Winnipeg managers, who could now contact deaf employees via e-mail, quickly saw results.

"Things happen faster now," said Wilkinson. "It allows me to communicate [with deaf employees] throughout the day. Plus, they can now contact me without going through a third party."

Tooling Manager Bill Blunderfield knows some ASL and said deaf employees who work with him are accomplished lip-readers, but he agreed that the BlackBerrys had helped. "I work out of two different facilities, and now the deaf employees are the easiest people to reach," he said.

Former Winnipeg Human Resources Director Scott Drach (now HR director for Connexion by Boeing) said hearing employees also have been positive about the initiative. On the 2005 Boeing Employee Survey, Winnipeg's affirmative response to the statement "My work group has a climate in which diverse perspectives are valued" increased by 14 percentage points over the previous year.

"When management takes this sort of action, it sends a message that we'll spend money and resources to be sure people are included," Drach said. "It creates a more diverse and inclusive environment with no barriers to communication, which in turn strengthens the business. It's hard to win a game if half the team is on the sidelines."

"Deaf employees have a tendency to feel invisible," Rabu added. "The BlackBerry makes us equal with everyone."

—Maribeth Bruno

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