In the 1970s, handicapped people began asserting their rights in the public sector. The struggles over education, transportation and other issues of concern to them remain unresolved. But if local efforts by the handicapped to break into the business world are any indication, the '80s may see their emergence as a valuable force in the private sector.
Nonprofit and volunteer groups are actively trying to educate the corporate world about the benefits of employing blind and deaf people. The success story of John Yeh, president of Integrated Microcomputer Services Inc. in Rockville, provides an example for the community that the handicapped can be productive in business. eh came to this country from Taiwan with his parents, who brought him here as a teen-ager to take advantage of greater opportunities for the deaf. Yeh said he taught himself English by virtually memorizing a Chinese-to-English dictionary.
He graduated from Gallaudet College and then became one of the first deaf people to receive a master's degree in computer science from the University of Maryland.
Yeh clearly was ambitious. But even with advanced degrees in a field known for its lucrative employment opportunities, his handicap seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle. He was unsuccessful in his attempts to find a job outside the deaf community, and it lead him to coin a slogan, "It's a far greater handicap to be not able to work than it is to be deaf."
While employed in the demographic studies department at Gallaudet, Yeh became frustrated at the prospect of being confined to employment in the deaf world. And he knew many qualified deaf people who were either unemployed or underemployed because of their impaired hearing.
So in 1979, Yeh launched Integrated Microcomputer Services, a computer systems and software development firm. The company now employs more than 80 people at its 8,300-square-foot offices.
IMS had fiscal year 1982 revenues of $2.8 million. Its 1983 revenues are projected at $8.5 million, according to Yeh's assistant, Mary Ann Locke. The company has won contracts from the Department of the Army, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor and Computer Sciences Corp.
Locke, who worked in public relations for the National Association of the Deaf for about 15 years before going to IMS, said she knows of few deaf-owned companies that have achieved the same success as Yeh's.
The driving force behind IMS continues to be the need for deaf people to have "professional" jobs alongside hearing people. About 20 percent of Yeh's employes are deaf people with college degrees, and about 60 percent of all the company's workers know sign language, according to IMS Vice President Paul Patch.
"We try to mix hearing and deaf employes in the same environment," Patch said. "Many of the programs I'm acquainted with place deaf people in a sweat shop environment and have them do data entry. . . . John's thesis was that if you give a hearing-impaired person an opportunity to work in a professional assignment, he can do it. The success of our company demonstrates that." $100,000 Small Business Administration loan helped Yeh get started. But the confounding process of applying for SBA funds was intensified by the agency's lack of TTY machines -- typing devices through which the deaf can communicate by telephone -- or sign-language interpreters. The SBA still has no such services, Locke said.
Yeh said he plans to recruit more deaf people trained in computer sciences by traveling to colleges, specifically to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., in his drive to prove that they can succeed in the working world.
"In the '60s, many [deaf people] worked as printers and in the '70s, many went to work at the U.S. Post Office," Yeh said. "In the '80s, I think more and more will go into the computer field. My prediction is that, in the '90s, more will go into the engineering field because that doesn't require the use of the telephone or voice" as much as some other fields.
Programs such as the "job exploration" workshop held recently by the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind also operate on the premise that the visually handicapped perform at work just as well, if not better than, "sighted" people. Blind people attending the program included an X-ray technician, a psychologist, a nuclear physicist, a zoologist, an antitrust lawyer and a pianist.
Local employers at the workshop received advice on interviewing, hiring and firing the blind: "Don't be intimidated by using the word blind." "Match the blind person's qualifications as you would any other candidate." "If a person does not work out, you should not feel guilty about releasing him from his job."
Lighthouse director of rehabilitation Theresa N. Travis, organizer of the workshop, said C&P Telephone Co. and the Department of Justice employ relatively large numbers of blind people.
"These people are being paid on par with any sighted person," Travis said. "They've been hired on qualifications. They've shown their bosses they can do the job."