Out of her silence, Sharilynn Knight moves with a laser-like focus at her desk — fielding phone calls, filing emails, downloading documents, verifying information, and managing the mortgage-closing countdown for homebuyers. Deaf since birth, Knight works seamlessly in her job as a mortgage closer for Wells Fargo Home Lending, and most customers never know about her disability. She runs with the best in her field, with help from assistive technology and interpreters. Knight, 55, relishes all of the awards, nomination letters, and other honors of her 17-year career.
“All of that has motivated me even more, validated my work, and recognized the skill set that I possess,” she said.
Through her acumen and determination, Knight represents all that is possible for people with disabilities when they get a fair chance, said Kathy Martinez, head of Wells Fargo Disability and Accessibility Strategy, who is blind.
“Sharilynn is a great example of the more than 10,000 team members who have self-identified as having a disability who are making a positive impact for our customers,” said Martinez, a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Labor Department. “Not long ago, people with disabilities were relegated to behind-the-scenes, low-impact roles. We’ve come a long way.”
Employment for people with disabilities has in fact come a long way, by some key measures. In nearly a decade, their unemployment rate has plummeted from 14.5% in 2009 to 8% in 2018 (PDF), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That decline has come as Wells Fargo and other major companies have made progress in providing an accessible and welcoming workplace for people with disabilities. In recent years, the company has received a number of related awards for its work, including being named one of the National Organization of Disability’s Leading Disability Employers in 2019.
Knight said she has clearly benefited from the company’s efforts.
“My career path here has enabled me to grow as a person,” she said, “knowing that with confidence, there are no limits in what I can do.”
Not long after Knight was born in upstate New York, her parents realized she was deaf — the result of inner ear damage when her mother contracted rubella, a form of measles, during pregnancy. In school, however, Knight showed a sharp mind, learning to read and write through oral instruction and lipreading.
At the age of 12, Knight said, she discovered sign language after reading about Helen Keller, the renowned author who was deaf and blind. Later, after her parents divorced, she moved to Maryland with her mother and attended the Maryland School for the Deaf. She said it opened a new world for her.
“That’s where I discovered who I am — my own voice, mind, and emotions; basically, my identity,” she said. “I realized the value of being in the deaf community, where I could express myself, communicate my ideas freely, and be truly understood.”
After graduating, Knight attended historic Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where she studied business administration. Later, she transferred to the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and its National Technical Institute for the Deaf, where she received an associate’s degree in office technology.
Buoyed by her growing confidence, she began her career journey in financial services in the hearing world — working jobs as a teller, mortgage clerk, loan processor, and mortgage closer.
Throughout her journey, Knight said she has navigated the usual challenges that deaf people face in the workplace, including communication, acceptance, and respect. At each step, however, she has received promotions and recognitions, which have been gratifying and encouraging.
“I’ve had to fight for my rights as a deaf person to be treated as an equal by my colleagues,” she said. “I had to prove myself by showing what I could do and that for every problem, there is a solution.”
In 2002, Knight moved to San Bernardino, California, got married, and joined Wells Fargo’s mortgage operation, where she could thrive personally and professionally, she said.
“At Wells Fargo, I finally found my voice to speak out, and that helped shape who I am today,” Knight said. “For years, I used to be shy and did not know how to speak with colleagues. But at Wells Fargo, there’s something different about the workplace that gives me confidence and helps me have a can-do attitude, whatever the challenge.”
Knight has also found it a good workplace for the heart, bonding with colleagues such as Kathy Frogner, another closer on the Home Lending team. Frogner, who had temporary partial deafness as a child, learned lipreading and some sign language during that time. She and Knight quickly became friends as they compared life experiences.
“She has a great sense of humor, has a big heart, and is really considerate of others,” Frogner said. “I’ve asked her to teach me more sign language, and she’s taught me a few things, though I’m really not very good at it. Sometimes, when I move my hands around to spell something, she just laughs. We laugh a lot and have fun, but when it gets down to work, she’s all business.”
Photo: Kelly MastinWith her work ethic and dedication, Knight is a respected go-to contributor amid the daily pressures and especially in periods of high-volume demand, said Gina Jimenez, Knight’s supervisor.
“I depend on her a lot for that, but sometimes I just have to tell her to slow down,” Jimenez said. “She’s really just an amazing person to me, with all that she does and all that she has overcome. I’m so glad to have gotten to know her so well, to hear her stories, and she listens to mine. I cherish that. I think it’s great that she gets an opportunity to share her story with so many people. She does her job well, and she’s very deserving.”
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