Meet 3 Deaf & HOH Professionals Doing Big Things in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Equal access for Deaf and hard-of-hearing folks requires hard work, dedication and tenacity — and a desire to understand the needs of the community.

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Executives in corporate boardrooms everywhere are either championing or paying lip service to — depending on your level of skepticism — the cause of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Regardless, the DEI movement is undeniable and has momentum. Many of the world’s largest, most successful companies now boast DEI-dedicated departments that spend millions of dollars on scaling DEI initiatives, and set ambitious DEI hiring and retention goals.

But the question remains: Is DEI just another hollow corporate buzz-term? Or is the progress sustainable and rooted in genuine change?

CEOs like Marc Benioff of Salesforce are trying their best to reassure the public of the latter. “Equality takes many different forms — income, education, racial, gender, LGBTQ, ability. There’s so much work to be done across all of these issues as we fight for equality for all,” Benioff said.

One of these issues is the shameful Deaf employment gap of 22.5% for people ages 25–64 in the United States (see our coverage on Post-Pandemic Hiring). To borrow from Benioff, there remains “so much work to be done” here to turn the tide of this staggering discrepancy. But these 3 remarkable Deaf professionals are doing big things in the world of DEI, changing the status quo, and giving us hope in the process.

3 headshots, profile photos of Catarina Rivera, Corey Axelrod, Robert Nichols, DEI and DHH advocates
DEI Advocates: Catarina Rivera, Corey Axelrod, Robert Nichols

Robert Nichols, World Deaf Architecture

After graduating with a Master’s Degree in Urban Design from Cornell University in 1981, Robert Nichols began a successful, storied career as a professional architect. Nichols Design Associates, his Washington, DC-based firm, has garnered a German Design Award, a Commendation Award for Accessible Design in Public Architecture from the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board, and many more. As a young man, Nichols said, none of that seemed possible.

“I was the only Deaf student and I lived in a hearing world,” Nichols told Ava. “I learned to be creative and when I faced fear, I learned how to become courageous and accept the challenge.”

The challenge Nichols has taken on at this stage of his career is to increase opportunities for Deaf and hard-of-hearing architects and designers. In a field that often involves impromptu on-site visits, Deaf architects have historically been frozen out of many late stages of design, often being limited to desk work, Nichols said.

So he founded World Deaf Architecture (WDA) in 2016, a non-profit that’s a subdivision of the American Institute of Architecture’s (AIA) Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. With a board full of Deaf and hard-of-hearing industry professionals providing mentorship, training, and other resources to up-and-comers, Nichols hopes WDA’s efforts will also help provide guidance on reasonable accommodations for professionals working in an architectural studio.

“When I was starting out working, there was no one giving me help, informing me or advising me,” he said. “Hopefully, people will be able to access the support and advice that I wish I would have received.”

Catarina Rivera, Public Speaker + DEI Consultant

At age 17, Catarina Rivera received a diagnosis: Usher Syndrome type 2, a combination of progressive vision loss due to Retinitis pigmentosa and moderate-to-severe hearing loss. Today, those intersecting identities of Latinx, hard-of-hearing, and vision impaired constantly inform her point-of-view as a leading DEI consultant, trainer, and public speaker.

“I am who I am. I share my own life with participants in my workshops and in my work with companies,” she told Ava. “It gives me a unique passion and strength from where I can do this work, because I didn’t see myself here.”

After starting a successful food justice organization and a sustainable travel brand, Rivera founded Blindish Latina, a platform that smashes disability stigmas through storytelling, advocacy, and education. In her work training and consulting with employee groups for DEI initiatives at companies, often in the tech sector, Rivera said she sees a willingness to learn, grow, and change.

“The employees always have a lot of questions,” she said. “I’m able to build a deeper relationship with them and they’re able to see the connection to their work, and prioritize accessibility and disability inclusion. So I think it’s great to have the option of coming in and being the spark for that at these places.”

Still, she’s adamant that sweeping change and desired results within large organizations isn’t going to happen overnight.

“Culture change takes time,” she said. “What we do know is that just issuing a statement about diversity, equity, and inclusion, doesn’t make it happen. You have to do the work.”

Corey Axelrod, 2axend

For Corey Axelrod, growing up seeing his father battle multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer, was painful enough. But seeing him try to navigate a healthcare system that was “practically inaccessible” for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing seemed to rub salt in the wound.

“Being fourth generation Deaf in my family, seeing the different challenges that my father faced during treatment because of barriers in the healthcare system has stuck with me all these years,” Axelrod told Ava. “And my dad isn’t the only one.”

That’s why Axelrod started 2axend, his Chicago-based strategic consulting and training firm on a mission to propel user-centric experiences for Deaf and hard of hearing individuals. They provide customized training, assessments, consulting, and strategic planning services for higher education institutions, nonprofits, corporate retail, hospitals, and more.

“We meet our clients where they’re at in their journey,” he said. “We work with them at all phases, from recruitment all the way to employee retention and promotion. But the fundamental focus is making sure they optimize the user experience for Deaf and hard of hearing individuals, whether that’s employees or their customers.

Axelrod cited the Deaf employment gap of 22.5%, which “breaks his heart,” as a constant source of motivation. But it’s also the memory of his father, he said, that continues to inspire his push for progress.

“My dad passed away and that’s always in the back of my mind, but I still really want to do more,” he said. “I want to improve the quality of life for members of my community.”

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