Confessions of an Inside Man
Dennis S. Buck
From The Chronicle of Higher Education
IT’S A LIVING: Not all techies make their profits on the job. Dennis S. Buck, a deaf computer programmer (who also happened to be in a wheelchair and whose boss deemed him unpromotable) supplemented his $8-an-hour wage the old-fashioned way: peddling sign-language cards in airports and shopping malls around the country. At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, he earned $750 to $1,000 a weekend. He describes his career in Deaf Peddler: Confessions of an Inside Man, out last month from Gallaudet University Press.
The time-tested strategy was simple. Pass around cards containing a message like, “I am a deaf person selling this sign-language guide to meet my living expenses. Will you kindly make a donation?” Then circle the room again to pick up the cards or donations.
The practice dates back at least to the late 1800’s, long before the federal government began providing disability income. From the beginning, the National Association of the Deaf and similar organizations campaigned against peddling on the grounds that it encouraged pity for deaf people, writes Robert M. Buchanan, a professor of history at Goddard College and the author of Illusions of Equality: Deaf Americans in School and Factory, 1850-1950, in a foreword. But facing widespread misunderstanding, deaf people’s only other option was to remain “in insulting, oppressive jobs for years without complaint,” writes Mr. Buck.
Even today, many peddlers are poor — illegal immigrants, for example, who speak neither English nor American Sign Language — and are forced to hand over most of their earnings to ringleaders.
As an entrepreneurial A student earning a bachelor’s degree from Gallaudet, Mr. Buck was a different case. He tried out peddling on a college lark in 1985 and didn’t stop for nearly 12 years.
“My addiction was to make fast money in a short time, especially during Christmas,” he writes in an e-mail message. During the Christmas season, “I could earn $1,200 a day for 10 hours of work.”
At first proud to make money off of his deafness, Mr. Buck eventually grew tired of evading airport police and supporting a harmful stereotype. He decided to get a master’s degree and, though he didn’t quit it cold turkey, started writing about peddling to gain some distance. He last peddled in December 1997, and now works as a Web developer for AT&T.
“Ironically, peddling earnings supported the writing of this book,” he writes, “Money given under the false notion that deaf people can’t, financed a book telling everyone yes, they can.”
—Jennifer K. Ruark
Dennis S. Buck is a computer programmer in Longwood, FL.