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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Illinios Casino Bets on the Hearing Impaired

Rivers Casino
Chicago Tribune: After years of job rejection, Kuumba Hogu of Park Forest wasn't expecting much when he applied for a position at Rivers Casino.

Employers would often retreat the second they saw his hearing aid, the 37-year-old said, so he anticipated the same reaction from the gambling venue in Des Plaines.

But his confidence grew when the Anixter Center, a Chicago nonprofit that helps those with disabilities, had him sign with a hearing-impaired Rivers Casino employee who described the work atmosphere and his experience with other staffers. After a successful interview with the northwest suburban casino, Hogu began working as a facility technician Sept. 9.

People at Rivers Casino "take the time to hear what you have to say," Hogu said through an interpreter. "I wish other employers would give deaf people a chance and open the doors."

Hogu is one of seven hearing-impaired staffers at the new casino, which has partnered with the Anixter Center to find job candidates. Three of those seven were introduced by Anixter.

The 95-year-old organization's goal is to convince businesses that disabled people can exceed job expectations despite some limits. One of its programs also brings in translators to make the interview process smoother.

Often, employers focus on the person's disability rather than their abilities and ask questions unrelated to the job, said David Price, an employment specialist for the Anixter Center.

That has not been the case at Rivers, which opened this summer and is now used as an example by the agency. The casino will also be highlighted in the center's upcoming promotional film as a model for workplace diversity.

"They're not hesitant to hire our candidates," Price said. "That's something we don't see very often."

The partnership began this year when Adam Schermerhorn, 52, who is also hearing-impaired, decided to apply for a job at the casino. Working with the Anixter Center, the Chicago resident said he wasn't nervous about the application process but felt a little overwhelmed at the job fair in April with 6,000 others.

But when Schermerhorn and a member of the nonprofit were approached by a Rivers Casino employee who also knows sign language, they immediately felt more relaxed. Representatives from the nonprofit began speaking with casino staff about its mission and began building a relationship.

Ultimately, Schermerhorn was asked back for an interview, then offered a job as a technician, which allows him to flex his carpentry muscles. He is now a liaison between the casino and the agency and was the Rivers employee who sat down with Hogu to see if he would be a good fit.

Rivers leaders say American Sign Language is one of about 10 languages in use at the casino. Instead of focusing on a disability, they look for people who fit the job qualifications, have great customer service skills and positive attitudes, said Kate McMahon, director of human resources and community relations for Rivers Casino.

"It's almost invigorating to see the communication between our employees," she said. "It's not a barrier for us."

Hogu said he's happy to finally be part of a team that's accepting of him. He and Schermerhorn have been teaching sign language to their co-workers, but more important, they are sharing their skills and expertise.

"I'm just glad to be offered the opportunity to work here," Hogu said. "It's been a long journey for me."

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