Derik Kendrick never expected to learn American Sign Language as a second language. In his past 20 years working in construction, he never knowingly worked alongside anyone who was deaf. But as co-owner of Plano, Texas, solar installation company Axium Solar (No. 60 on the 2020 Top Solar Contractors list), that all changed.
An Axium installer told Kendrick his nephew who is hard of hearing was looking for work and wondered if there was a place for him at Axium. The company hired him and was happy with his work, so when two of his friends who are deaf came looking for work, the company hired them too. Axium now employs 10 deaf solar installers.
“We were getting phone calls like instantly as soon as it got out that we were hiring [deaf employees],” Kendrick said.
The state of Texas recognized Axium’s efforts to employ deaf workers in 2018, when the company was nominated for and won a Lex Frieden Employment Award from The Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities. The awards highlight the efforts of employers to hire and retain employees with disabilities.
According to a 2016 study by the National Deaf Center, almost half of deaf people weren’t in the labor force, compared to less than one-quarter of hearing people.
Deaf Axium installer Michael Plummer said he had a difficult time finding a job initially.
“A cousin of mine introduced me into solar when I was looking for a deaf-friendly company to work with after searching high and low for a job,” Plummer said via email.
Kevin Ruffin, another Axium installer, said he has not had trouble finding jobs as a deaf person. He worked at Home Depot for five years before Plummer encouraged him to come work at Axium.
“I will say it is a lot easier to get on with a company as a deaf person if you know someone already in the company,” Ruffin said via email.
Ruffin said the solar industry is a good fit for deaf workers because it’s very visual and hands-on work.
“So far, in this field and with this company I have been welcomed in, and that has also made the job easier,” Ruffin said.
He doesn’t think working on a solar jobsite is harder for deaf people than hearing people, just a bit different.
“For instance, when coworkers on the crew are trying to get each other’s attention, they can easily do so by calling for each other from a far distance. When my coworkers or boss have to give me information, they have to be in range where I can see them, and not everyone knows sign, so they may have to walk over and type on their phones,” Ruffin said. “The more time I spend with the guys, the more we have learned to communicate and work together.”
Many Axium workers, including Kendrick, have pursued ASL training to be able to communicate more easily with their deaf colleagues. Some employees went to free ASL classes at a public school in Plano, and others relied mostly on YouTube tutorials. Then, they picked up more sign language while working alongside deaf installers.
“I’m pretty much fluent now over the last three years. I duo with these guys every day,” Kendrick said. “I started off with my ABCs, then I went to safety stuff and then just started picking up anything else I could take, anything else I could learn.”
Expanding communication options has proven to be beneficial for the whole team.
“Deaf or not, we have to stay on our toes and keep eyes out for each other’s safety,” Plummer said. “Life in the construction field can be dangerous when careless. Being deaf encouraged my coworkers to try to communicate more than they usually would.”
He said sometimes, solar project construction gets so loud that sign language works better for communication between hearing employees too.
“With sign language, we are able to communicate in noisy environments without an issue,” Plummer said.
Besides adapting jobsite communication styles, the only other challenge of employing deaf installers is making accommodations for remote conference calls and large in-person meetings. Still, Kendrick said it’s not a big hassle or expense.
For remote meetings, deaf installers can use a free app called Purple that offers free ALS interpreters via videocall. When the classic conference call issue comes up where many people try to talk at the same time, the interpreter sometimes has a hard time telling the deaf installer what others are saying.
“We all kind of have to remember that we have to adapt our communication styles so that communication is effective,” said Eric Cotney, VP and general manager of Axium.
For larger in-person meetings, the company hires interpreters to come in. But any small challenges or extra expenses necessary to employ deaf installers aren’t a big deal to Axium.
“They’ve really been some of our best employees: hard-working, high ethics,” Cotney said. “It’s been, I think, one of the best decisions for our company. We feel really blessed to get to work with these guys and allow them to contribute to the success of our business.”
Watch the video Axium Solar made to showcase solar as a great career choice for deaf workers:
This story was featured exclusively in our 2020 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.