By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BENTON HARBOR — Graham Forsey has an extraordinary background to say the least.
The 22-year-old has lived in St. Joseph for just over a year, having grown up in Canada. He lived in New York before then, does the occasional mountain biking and serves as a business systems analyst for the world’s leading company in home appliances – Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor.
Forsey was also born deaf.
Raised in Newfoundland, a small island on the eastern side of Canada, Forsey began to learn the English language under his parents’ tutelage. His mother, an elementary school teacher, and father, who worked in the finance department for the provincial government, ensured he would get a proper education.
“I was struggling with English growing up and falling behind,” Forsey said. “Hearing people learn their language by being submerged in it. I didn’t have that option.”
He would attend a deaf school before joining a more mainstream program. After graduating in 2010, he went to the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. RIT is known for its enrollment, which is heavily comprised of deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
Forsey said he chose the private university so he would be able to communicate with those who shared his disability and those who didn’t. He left RIT with a degree in management of informational systems.
“As a deaf person, it’s important to be somewhere where others know a little bit of sign,” Forsey said. “After I graduated, I sent out my resume and applied to a lot of places online.”
Like his education, Forsey’s hiring with Whirlpool was unlike most others.
When asked for his number for a phone interview, Forsey requested a number to call instead. For his over-the-phone interview, Forsey called using a video relay service so he could communicate with an interpreter using a video screen, who would then translate for him.
Forsey was then sent an email letting him know Whirlpool wanted an in-person interview. He flew to Benton Harbor and asked for an interpreter to be present for the interview.
The morning of the interview Forsey learned the people on the interview panel were unaware of his disability.
“I got there and they were learning this information for the first time,” he said. “That was a learning experience. But the interview went pretty well and the rest is history.”
It was Forsey’s grandfather who first began to suspect his grandson was deaf. He wouldn’t respond to noises or when people would call Forsey by name.
Rod Forsey, Graham’s father, recalled a story about a time when Forsey and his mom were visiting relatives. During the visit, a dog entered the room and barked loudly near Forsey, who was 12 months old at the time.
He exhibited no fear or reaction toward the dog.
“They would bang some pots and pans together and I wouldn’t even respond to that,” Forsey said.
His parents took him to an audiologist and were told he had profound hearing loss.
People may become deaf from an illness, some sort of hearing loss when they are young, or are born this way.
In Forsey’s case, the cochlea in his ears did not function the way they were supposed to. This part of the ear is responsible for changing the mechanical signals to electrical signals for the nerve to carry to the brain.
Forsey would get a cochlea implant when he was five, which proved to be unsuccessful in helping him hear. A cochlea implant is a form of hearing aid that helps the hard of hearing interpret sounds. One knock against the implant is it makes these sounds distorted and scratchy. Forsey says it sounds almost mechanical.
Forsey’s younger of two sisters was also born deaf. She got a cochlea implant when she was much younger and had more time to practice with it, Forsey said. She can speak and hear sounds.
Outside of a hearty laugh that accompanies every one of Forsey’s jokes he shares through an interpreter, Forsey is silent. He prefers to speak with his hands.
“For me, sign language is the best way for me to communicate,” he said. “A lot of deaf people can hear, the question is can they understand the sounds that are coming in? My sister has had many years learning how to interpret the sounds coming in through the cochlea implant. If it’s a noisy environment, it can be hard to hear. The implant can’t filter out background noise.”
When Forsey’s parents learned he was deaf, a handful of thoughts went through their heads. Communication was a required building block and learning to sign was the first step. Initial learning involved sign language books and classes.
What surprised them was the structure and nature of it, Rod Forsey said. The family learned expressions mattered and that body language was important in conveying one’s message.
“Watching someone who is confident, paced and engaged, is like watching a ballet of the hands,” he said. “It is graceful and illuminating to watch.”
His parents went through different phases in the months following his diagnosis.
In the beginning, there was much worry and concern for his welfare and future. But as time passed and Forsey began to reveal his capability, Rod Forsey said he knew his son would be OK.
“We always emphasized good reading and writing skills and I knew with the way business was going that if he could present his ideas well, he would garner the respect he deserved from both the deaf and hearing communities,” he said. “Watching him grow into the person he is today was like doing one of the hardest courses in (a) university and getting an A.”
Up to interpretation
As a business systems analyst, Graham Forsey works with the business and technical end of things. In between those two divisions, he works as the middle man – much like an interpreter.
He gathers information about what’s needed on the business side of things and explains that to the “tech people.” The tech people talk to him about how they meet those needs so Forsey can explain that in an understandable way to others. That way technology can assist the business end of things.
Forsey calls upon a variety of interpreters almost every day in order to communicate with coworkers.
He doesn’t always get the same interpreter, but he does see five to 10 of the same ones on a regular basis. They come from all over the state, including Northern Indiana.
“We’re still in the process of maybe having an interpreter in-house that would work with me full-time,” Forsey said. “We’ll see, maybe that’ll happen in a few months or so.”
Outside the interpreters, Forsey uses an iPad supplied by Whirlpool. The device can access the video relay service he needs to make calls.
Texting has made a lot of things easier, too.
“It’s interesting to me that most people prefer text to calling sometimes,” he said. “Technology has progressed so much in recent years, which has helped.”
When talking with his manager, Forsey can use two keyboards with two screens that are synced through Bluetooth technology. They work as a glorified version of instant messaging, where each user can type something quickly to each other.
Because of this, Forsey says his disability doesn’t have to be a barrier.
“People are good at taking the initiative. It can be kind of awkward the first time we meet,” he said. “But after a few minutes they realize it is really not that big of a deal. I’m a person, and we just have to figure out how to work together.”
For this insight, Forsey has become a sought-after speaker around Whirlpool. He’s done a number of presentations to various groups.
Forsey’s presence can also be felt in Whirlpool’s newer employee resource group. Forsey helped start the group called AVID – also known as Awareness of Visible and Invisible Disabilities.
As a co-lead of the group, Forsey helps break down barriers and support those within the company who have disabilities.
Forsey’s father was not surprised by his son’s involvement in creating such a group.
“I intimated to him on several occasions that he would one day be an advocate for his people because of the gifts he has,” Rod Forsey said. “His mom and I wanted him to be concerned and help others as well as find a good way to earn a living. We are so proud of him and what he has become.”
Through his time in school and the professional workplace, Forsey said he wants to focus on what people can do rather than what they can’t.
“I want people to see who I am for my skills – my abilities – and not to focus so much on my deafness,” he said. “It’s easier to look at it from a linguistic point of view. If you met someone from Italy, you just have to figure out how to communicate with them. It’s a different language, but they’re still a person.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 29, 2015)