Melinda Gallagher makes a difference in someone else’s life every day at VersAbility Resources.
She’s a Team Leader, a Deaf Employment Specialist and a Deaf Liaison who understands the challenges deaf people face in the professional world. Gallagher is deaf and the daughter of two deaf parents, but the disability didn’t limit her and doesn’t have to be limiting.
“I encourage the employer not to look at the deafness of a person but to focus on that individual as a whole,” she said. “When they change their way of thinking, that alleviates a lot of the difficulty. A lot of people think a deaf person can’t work. That’s not true. A deaf person can’t hear. Deaf people can work like anyone else.”
Gallagher attended a mainstream school growing up in Northern Virginia, where she became proficient in English and American Sign Language. She earned an undergraduate degree at Gallaudet University and held multiple positions over the years working with the Deaf community.
She started at VersAbility a year ago, settling in Hampton Roads where she has extended family in addition to her own husband and son. Gallagher is part of the Supported Employment staff at the Hampton nonprofit, meaning she personalizes services to the individuals she works with to help them thrive professionally.
“I really, really enjoy working with a variety of individuals,” she said. “Sometimes deaf people have a tough time navigating the hearing world. I enjoy helping them overcome the challenges they face.”
A lack of communication between employers and deaf individuals is the most common barrier to success. Gallagher serves as a bridge to facilitate communication by relying on multiple tools that employers can quickly learn. Not all employers know sign language but teaching others to communicate in writing or by texting can remove an obstacle. Concise messaging is key, she said.
“You want to keep your message focused and to the point, so the deaf person doesn’t get lost in all the words,” she said. “Using visual aids, like making a chart to show a deaf person what their duties are for the day, is an easy fix.”
Gallagher introduces employers to simple signs to communicate basic ideas — when it’s break time, for example. Virtual tools and a video relay system open the door to deaf employees communicating over the phone.
“There’s more opportunity for employment and opportunity for advancement today because of improved technology,” she said. “Access to interpreters and video calls have opened up the scope of accessibility to deaf people. People didn’t realize the skills deaf people had because they couldn’t convey them. Technology has really opened up those doors for communication.”
Gallagher’s gratification comes from watching the people she works with through VersAbility be able to work without limits just as anyone else would.
“It’s very fulfilling to see somebody succeed and improve their everyday life in some way,” she said. “What I teach someone on the job also helps them out in the world. It shows them I am dependable, and they know they can trust me, so it builds confidence. It really is a wonderful feeling.”
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