Alabama community loves deaf Waffle House cook who taught his co-workers to use sign language
Manager Michael Clements has "never seen" an employee like Pookie White.
Even though companies with workplaces that make accommodations for disabled workers are happier and more profitable, there is still a huge discrepancy in workforce participation between deaf people and those who can hear. According to Deaf People and Employment in the United States, 53% of deaf people are in the workforce as compared to 75.8% of those who can hear.
One of the biggest hurdles to deaf people entering the workforce is discriminatory hiring practices, intentional or not.
“There are often layers of discriminatory hiring practices that make [workplace participation] statistics still hold true today,” the study says. “Such practices can range from the discriminatory language on the job ad itself, to the application & hiring process, and can even impact the promotion of deaf employees.”
A story out of Hope Hull, Alabama, originally reported by WSFA, shows that when companies give deaf people the opportunity to excel at their jobs, beautiful things can happen.
Pookie White, who is deaf, was a dishwasher at the Hope Hull Waffle House and wanted to get promoted to cook. But management was worried that it would be difficult for him and the staff because he wouldn’t be able to hear the orders.
However, management gave him a shot and he’s been doing a fantastic job on the grill. “I wondered how it was going to work,” Waffle House area manager Michael Clements told WSFA. To bridge the communication gap, White taught his co-workers some sign language and they enthusiastically picked it up.
“He’s half deaf and I’m wearing a mask, so I have to use sign language,” server Jessie Simmons said.
But Simmons learned sign language on the fly and now they’re a great team. “She’s slow sometimes,” White jokes, knowing the effort his fellow employees have made to make their arrangement work. “It gets on my nerves.”
Clements credits White’s co-workers for helping him succeed. “They could have just not wanted to do that and consequently, he probably would have failed at cooking,” he said.
The deaf chef has become a hit with people in the Hope Hull community. “He has regular customers who come just to see him,” Clements said. “They love the show. That’s part of the thing about Waffle House, we are right in front of everybody on center stage. He eats the center stage up.”
White likes to give customers a hard time when they’re placing orders and he breaks into the chicken dance when someone orders chicken.
"Pookie is the sweetest soul. He loves to joke with the waitresses, they give each other a hard time and it’s so funny. He knows when we walk through the door exactly what we are getting too," Chelsea Milstead wrote on WSFA’s Facebook page. "I love him! He’s amazing and always makes sure the food is cooked to perfection!!" Jessica Beasley added.
"He is the best he knows our order when we walk through the door." Mary Push Norman wrote.
Pookie White’s story is a great lesson for business owners and managers everywhere. People with disabilities shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to being given opportunities in the workplace. When things may seem like a challenge at first, never underestimate a group of co-workers’ ability to step up and create an environment where everyone can thrive.