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Cal U's payroll director overcame challenges

| Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Receiving a call from a payroll chief may seem like nothing out of the ordinary, but to receive a call from one who is deaf and speechless is somewhat extraordinary.

Jim Ahearn, 43, is both.

It's through a video relay service that Ahearn is able to perform his duties.

As the only deaf person in a management position in southwestern Pennsylvania (excluding those who work at the school for the deaf), Ahearn has never allowed discrimination to stand in his way.

He is hard working and determined, and has refused to take "no" for an answer.

With all the technology available today, Ahearn can always find a way to communicate.

Ahearn was born in New Jersey, but his family moved to the Pittsburgh area when he was a little over a year old.

Shortly after the move, Ahearn developed spinal meningitis, which left him deaf. It also caused him to lose his sense of smell.

His parents decided to send him to the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Swissvale. He continued his education there until 7th grade when he then entered public school.

At the time, schools were not required to have interpreters.

His parents heard that North Allegheny offered a program for the hearing impaired, so that's where they decided to send him.

Ahearn's older sister, Mary Ann, said the transition was difficult for him because middle and high school students aren't always willing to accept those who are "differently abled."

But their parents felt it was the best thing for him.

"They felt as though having exposure to both the 'hearing and deaf worlds' was important if he was going to succeed in life," his sister said.

After graduating from North Allegheny, Ahearn went to Rochester, N.Y., where he attended the National Institute of the Deaf.

Unlike New York, Pittsburgh doesn't have a very large deaf community, so when he ventured north, he got so caught up in the community around him that he let his grades slip.

After a year there, he decided he wasn't ready for college so he returned to Pittsburgh.

When Ahearn started searching for a job, he realized how much discrimination he was going to face.

He worked at Mellon Bank, UPMC, Goodwill, and MetLife before coming to Cal U. At all of those jobs, anytime he applied for a management spot, he was told the same thing: he needed a degree.

"Different companies were awkward or afraid of hiring deaf people," Ahearn said. "They used the 'no degree' rejection to cover their necks. They didn't want a discrimination lawsuit."

While working at Goodwill Industries, he studied to become a certified payroll professional. He thought that would help him almost as much as a degree would.

"It's like a CPA, certified public accountant," Ahearn said.

He got the certification, but he still couldn't get the job he wanted.

At that point, many people would have given up, but Ahearn was too strong-minded to do that.

"Jim doesn't give up easily," his sister said. "Where others might have just thrown in the towel and retreated, he stayed with it. He had times of extreme frustration and disillusionment regarding why others didn't see him as the smart, congenial man that his friends, teachers and family did, but he never gave up trying."

Determined to move up, Ahearn accepted a non-management job at MetLife.

"At MetLife they offered free tuition," Ahearn said. "I found out about Seton Hill (University) and they offered a Saturday program, so it was perfect."

He was able to transfer his credits from Rochester to Seton Hill, so he earned his bachelor's degree in business in three years.

He even passed a Spanish class while he was there.

"It's amazing to think that someone who is deaf could grasp a foreign language," his sister said. "But he did."

Only two weeks after graduation, Ahearn was offered his current job at Cal U.

He finally made it to management.

Ahearn said it's been a struggle to get this far, but Cal offers him everything he needs, so it was worth it.

"Given the chance, deaf folks do very well," said his wife of eight years, Amy Ahearn.

"They know going in they need to show 'em what you're made of. I'm just so glad he's had this opportunity at Cal. He enjoys his job and it's rewarding for him."

Allan Golden, vice president of administration and finance, said he had no hesitation in hiring Ahearn because he was qualified for the job.

Ahearn uses all the technology he can get to complete every day tasks that most people take for granted.

For example, he makes his phone calls using the VRS.

It allows him to connect to an operator (via webcam) and then he or she calls the number of the person Ahearn wishes to speak with.

The operator translates back and forth from speaking to ASL to relay what the two are saying to each other.

It is a free service funded by the Federal Communications Commission and it played a big part in Ahearn getting the job at California.

If someone is on campus and needs to contact Ahearn, they can visit him in his office.

They would notice his office is much like any other office on campus.

He has pictures of his family, his certification on the wall, a desk, and a computer.

But there are two keyboards.

Visitors can use the blue tooth keyboard that sits opposite of Ahearn at his desk and type their questions into a Word document. Ahearn then uses his keyboard to respond.

It's just another way that Ahearn has bridged the gap between the hearing and deaf worlds.

"Jim is realistic," his wife said. "There are many obstacles he knows he will face. But he's pro-active, thinking about each situation and evaluating what communication will work best for that specific setting."

The only problem Ahearn still faces at Cal U is trying to get an interpreter scheduled for meetings.

Despite this conflict, things seem to be working out well for Ahearn.

Golden agrees that Ahearn is doing a great job.

"I knew that Jim was qualified for the job because of his background and experience," Golden said. "He is working out just fine here."

His wife is not surprised that her husband has had so much success at Cal U. She said that he is hard working, determined, and will get the job.

"If you want something done, give it to Jim" she said.

"He's not afraid to tackle new challenges and actually he welcomes them. He has a dynamic personality, and his sense of humor helps alleviate stress in many situations."

Ahearn also teaches part-time at Duquesne University. He teaches American Sign Language one day per week.

Ahearn and his wife adopted a daughter from China about 3 years ago.

MacKenzie, now 4, consumes a lot of her dad's free time.

"It is really awesome to watch a guy of his stature sitting on the floor, drinking from princess tea cups and playing with Barbies," his wife said

"He's an awesome father and husband."

The family will be traveling back to China in November or December of this year to adopt their second daughter.

When Ahearn is not overseeing payroll, teaching ASL or playing with his daughter, he will most likely be found in front of the television watching sports.

Amy Ahearn admits that the only reason the family has cable is because he is so addicted to sports.

"Of course I love football, hockey, and basketball," Ahearn typed with the excitement of a child. "But no baseball. I am tired of the Pirates always losing."

Ahearn says he doesn't see himself leaving the Cal U campus any time soon. He will continue to pursue higher positions, and hopes that he will one day be a vice president.

"Jim is an example of what you can accomplish in life if you don't allow challenges, stereotypes and people who don't take the time to find out who the person is behind that 'different way of communicating' to interfere in your goals and dreams," his sister said.

"His laugh is infectious and his heart is gentle. There's no doubt that his parents and sister who have passed on are watching over him and smiling."

It's clear that his family and friends are proud of the accomplishments that Ahearn has made.

He welcomes every challenge that is thrown in his path, and he won't let them slow him down.

"He's proud of where he comes from," his wife said.

"And he's thankful for all the blessings and challenges he's faced along the way.

"His past has helped mold who he is today."

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