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Custodian doesn't allow deafness to be a disability

Staff writer

For someone with the self-proclaimed gift of gab, an assumption might be that Richard Idleman would find it difficult to communicate with an employee who was unable to speak, but communication has not been an issue between Idleman and Anthony Gardner.

The two can converse for hours. They volley quick, good-natured barbs back and forth like a tennis match. They scribble on a six-inch yellow notepad, pass the sheets back and forth, and chuckle as they read each other’s sloppy handwriting.

In the month Gardner has worked at Centre schools, Idleman has filled up six notepads with conversations. It’s not a hindrance to Idleman or his company’s work flow, although it does take a little longer than a direct conversation.

Gardner is deaf. He has been unable to hear anything since he was a teenager. The condition is genetic; he has 26 deaf relatives on his father’s side. He can feel the loud clang of a horseshoe landing to the earth, or the sound of a large horn through the vibrations they produce. He said he does not miss hearing except in conversation and maybe listening to music.

There was one point Gardner wanted to make abundantly clear — he is not disabled. Deafness is not something to overcome, only something to live with. Gardner sees himself as just another person trying to do a good job.

Idleman agrees. There are many tasks Gardner can perform much better than Idleman, who is the director of operations for IServe custodial service. Gardner is gifted with an ability to do carpentry and small repairs. He also possesses extraordinary focus to lock in on a job like fixing a door frame and work it to completion.

“If he fails here, it’s not his fault — it’s our fault,” Idleman said. “As open as he and I are together, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have success as a team.”

Idleman said he did not hire Gardner to fill a quota but as an employee he expects to excel. So far, that expectation has been met. The first week, Gardner came into work and asked if there was anything more he could do, if there was any way he could be better. He told the daytime manager at Centre, Suzy Ammon, that he wanted to stay busy and repeated his request.

However, Idleman believes Gardner has a tendency to push himself harder than other employees because he is deaf, that he thinks he has something to prove; he has not gotten jobs in the past because he was deaf.

Idleman noted that Gardner will not tell people he is deaf right away when he is approached. If a Centre staff member asks him a question, he tries to read lips first before reaching for a note pad. He thinks this might be a point of frustration during basketball season when there are more unfamiliar faces gracing the Centre halls.

But Gardner has the entire fall season to acclimate to Centre. He is already ingratiating himself with the fellow members of the IServe staff. Gardner and Guy Arnold work together most evenings cleaning up the school. Arnold was impressed with Gardner’s affinity for physical comedy.

One evening after Richard had carefully mopped the floor, Gardner laid down on his belly to examine the gleaming surface at eye level. Without saying a word, he was able to mock Richard.

The Iserve employees agree with Idleman that the work they do is important. A dirty building will be the first thing students and teachers see in the morning; it could ruin their day. However, they also know they can’t take themselves too seriously. Ammon said it can drive you nuts if a student walks through a mopped floor. The custodians have to laugh that off, keep moving.

In this way, Gardner is ahead of the game.

Last modified Aug. 30, 2012

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