Friday, December 25, 2009

Deaf theater staff member inspires customers, colleagues

Deaf theater staff member inspires customers, colleagues

t's a normal Friday night at the movies in mid-December. The after-work and after-school crowds make their way in from the biting cold to sample one of the many flicks that flow out of Hollywood so prodigiously this time of year.

They stop by the concession stand for the requisite popcorn and soda and are likely to receive a dose of inspiration along with their order. All thanks to Jivan Petit, a "concessionist" on the night shift at the AMC Loews Georgetown 14 theater on K Street Northwest, where he has worked for five years.

He is quick with a smile, fast on his feet and never makes a customer wait. He scoops the corn, pours the drinks and hands out the change with evident pride and satisfaction in his work.

The 30-something Mr. Petit has been deaf since he was 1 year old, save for being able to sense some vibrations. He was born in India and adopted by a French couple, Michel and Marlene Petit, as an infant. He lost his hearing when he contracted meningitis and a high fever shortly after his adoption.

Mr. Petit ended up in the United States in the 1980s after his father moved the family here to take a job.

Many people struggle using a second language, especially those in service-oriented jobs, in which communication with customers is constant. For Mr. Petit, whose native language is French, that challenge is compounded by his hearing impairment. He takes this, like other obstacles he faces, in stride.

"It depends on if they speak too fast. I told them that I'm deaf and please note [their] order," Mr. Petit explains, writing answers to questions posed to him on a small notebook he keeps by the cash register.

He asks customers to use the same notebook to jot down orders he can't quite make out by reading lips.

"Sometimes people gesture to me what's their order," he writes, adding that some people are too impatient to write a note. "I can't blame them. I respect them. I'm OK and positive."

Wayne Morgan, an AMC general manager, has observed the way customers interact with Mr. Petit.

"They see him as a hardworking guy who means well, and it makes their trip here even more unique and memorable," he says.

"He can bridge the communication gap. Customers get drawn to him very easily. I see them come through and give him a high five," says Jacob Jochum, who has worked with Mr. Petit over the past few months.

Justin Scott, director of corporate communications for AMC Theaters, estimates that "a small percentage of AMC associates have a known or visible disability. It equates to an average of approximately one person with a known or visible disability at each theater."

"We recognize that it's difficult to innovate or truly serve a diverse guest population without reflecting that diversity in our associate base," he adds.

Mr. Petit, who has twice been honored as employee of the month at the theater, explains in an e-mail that he has been able to teach his fellow employees, not through words, but by example.

"People asked me some questions about working at concession, so I'm willing [to] help them and taught them how to do work on concession," he writes.

One of the customers Mr. Petit helped recently was Kara Kennedy Allen, daughter of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who championed the cause of people like Mr. Petit through his sponsorship of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"I think it's terrific," Mrs. Allen told The Washington Times as Mr. Petit filled her order.

"It didn't even phase me," she explained, referring to using a note to communicate her order.

Indeed, some guests walk into the theaters with a renewed appreciation for the films they are about to see, knowing people like Mr. Petit can't enjoy them the same way.

Mr. Petit writes that "Slumdog Millionaire" is his favorite movie.

"Yes, I have been watching it often and I have [it on] DVD at my home to watch it. It is a great movie and story," he writes, noting that he, like many people who are deaf watch movies at theaters that offer special captioning for the hearing impaired.

He is on track to graduate with a degree in computer information systems in 2012 from Strayer University, but a career at the movies could be an option.

When asked if Mr. Petit could one day be a manager himself, Mr. Morgan says, "It would be a challenge, but I would not rule it out."

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