5 actions to grow a deaf inclusive company
To truly embrace Diversity & Inclusion, you need to build a workplace where everyone can thrive. That means crafting organisations with accessibility front and centre. We’ve posted before about actions you can take to , but in this post, we talk about how to create inclusive workplaces for deaf people and the types of support you should have in place.
What is Deaf Awareness Week?
Deaf Awareness Week takes place from the 2nd to the 8th of May 2022. This week is all about amplifying the stories of deaf people, celebrating deaf culture, and raising awareness of how we can overcome barriers facing the deaf community.
There are 5 million people of working age in the UK who are deaf or have hearing loss. Hearing loss is much more prevalent than you might think, affecting 42% of people over 50. And deafness isn’t always visible, it can develop later in life and varies in levels of severity (see the box below). As employers, we need to be proactive and build support into the foundations of our organisations.
By removing barriers, you’ll be able to reach talented individuals who are otherwise overlooked or excluded from employment and enable deaf employees (or those who live with other disabilities) to reach their full potential.
• Deaf (with an uppercase D): refers to members of the Deaf community, who describe themselves as Deaf. Most Deaf people have experienced severe hearing loss their whole lives and communicate exclusively with sign language.
• deaf (with a lowercase d): refers to the physical condition of hearing loss.
• Hard of hearing: describes mild to moderate hearing loss. Some people may prefer to identify as ‘hard of hearing’ rather than Deaf, even if they use sign language.
Levels of hearing loss vary widely. Some hard of hearing people may be able to hear speech in a quiet room, or in busier environments with technical assistance, like a hearing aid.
Some deaf people cannot hear speech clearly, but may still be able to hear environmental noises such as telephones or sirens. People who are profoundly deaf cannot hear any sound and usually communicate through sign language and lip-reading.
How to grow a deaf inclusive workplace
Deafness doesn’t have to exclude people from work. It’s possible to thrive and contribute fully if we design jobs and workplaces with accessibility in mind. But over half of employees with hearing loss don’t tell their employer about their condition for fear of a negative reaction.
How can we foster a deaf-inclusive environment where people feel comfortable coming forward and getting the assistance they need? Here are 5 actions:
1) Be clear about your commitment to disability inclusion
Shout your commitment to building a disability-inclusive organisation loud and proud. Outline exactly what you do as an organisation to bolster disability inclusion, including the types of adjustments and support available. Make this clear on your website, social media and other public materials.
2) Build a deaf-inclusive recruitment process
Potential employees should feel confident in your company’s approach to deaf inclusion at their first point of contact. Write inclusive job ads and include the possibility to request accommodations in your interviews, such as interpreters or notetakers. Provide details upfront about what the interview process involves so that candidates can plan ahead.
⚠️ Important note: Under the Equality Act 2010, you cannot ask directly if someone experiences hearing loss in an interview. You can ask if candidates require accommodations and you are legally obligated to provide reasonable adjustments to support them.
3) Prepare reasonable adjustments and clearly signpost them
List the possible options for support in your business and include some examples in a central document that employees can easily reference. Let all employees know that if they experience or develop hearing loss while at your company, you’ll work with them to develop a solution to support them.
4) Make disability inclusion a regular talking point in 1-on-1s
You can’t always tell if someone is hard of hearing. It’s important to proactively offer support. Managers should check in with their team about support options. Make it a regular feature of 1-on-1s to discuss reasonable adjustments such as flexible work hours, changes to the environment or technical assistance.
5) Encourage supportive employee relationships
A 2012 study that surveyed deaf or hard of hearing workers found that coworker support was one of the most important forms of assistance at work. Offering to switch communication formats, adjust team routines, redistribute tasks or reduce noise in the office are all forms of coworker support.
However, many participants in the study felt that this need wasn’t met. Their coworkers often were unwilling to adapt to suit the needs of deaf colleagues or weren’t aware of how to behave supportively. And if your colleagues don’t seem supportive, it’s even harder to ask for help.
You can build supportive employee relationships by setting up a buddy programme. Nominate a close team member to pair with deaf or hard of hearing employees and offer day-to-day support.
Imagine you have a new colleague joining your team, Meghan, who is deaf. She can hear well in quiet environments with her hearing aid but finds it challenging to follow team meetings when people talk at the same time. She’s worried about drawing attention to herself because, in the past, people have doubted her abilities due to her hearing loss, even though she excels in her role. Without a sympathetic coworker or manager, Meghan might keep her difficulties to herself. Over time, she feels excluded from team meetings, misses out on important info, and loses her sense of belonging.
If Meghan is greeted in her first week with a nominated teammate to offer support, this story would end differently. Meghan wouldn’t have to draw attention to her difficulties in front of her other colleagues. She could discuss the problem with her buddy, who is more clued in on team norms. Her buddy could then talk to the team lead and other teammates about running more inclusive meetings and can lead by example, influencing everyone else’s behaviour.
How can you make reasonable adjustments for deaf employees?
To grow a deaf-inclusive workplace, you should be prepared to adapt the work environment to meet the needs of individuals. Start by asking the person what would help them best, as there is no solution to meet all needs. Here are a few examples of adjustments that can benefit deaf employees:
- Technical assistance such as amplified telephones, hearing loops, conversation listeners and other products
- Adapted communication, such as electronic messaging, note-taking in meetings, and live captions for video calls
- Changes to the physical working environment to reduce background noise and enable the employee to sit opposite colleagues they communicate most often with, making it easier to lip read
- Access to a sign language interpreter or notetaker
- Redistributing core job tasks among the team so that deaf employees can fully contribute to team success (e.g. if it is part of a deaf employee’s core role to sit in large meetings, analyse the team’s responsibilities to see if someone else can take on this task)
- Flexible or reduced working hours
Many employers avoid hiring people living with disabilities because they believe that making adjustments are costly and inconvenient. This belief is unfounded though — many adjustments are cost-free and benefit the whole workplace.
More tips for inclusive communication
- Offer the option to record meetings so that people can listen back to them in their own time.
- Subtitle all video communication with human-generated captions so you can capture nuance in speech.
- Offer the option to conduct 1-to-1 meetings over Slack rather than face to face.
- Prepare agendas in advance and always have them visible during the meeting.
- Reserve a spot at the front of presentations for people with hearing loss. It’s easier to lip read with a direct view of the speaker.
- Make sure only one person speaks at a time in meetings.
- When talking to someone who has an interpreter, talk to them directly, not their interpreter.
- Ask if someone needs to lipread you. If they do, face them directly, and speak clearly with normal mouth movements. Double-check their understanding as you talk.
- When giving a presentation, don’t turn your back on the audience while speaking to write on a board or refer to a graph. Your mouth should be visible to the audience when you’re talking.
- If running a video conference, test the tech in advance to make sure it’s accessible for hard of hearing participants. Use caption generators, and instruct speakers to look directly into the camera when talking.
- Nominate someone to take notes throughout the meeting to share with participants after.
- Schedule frequent breaks. It may be difficult to understand speech for extended periods of time for hard of hearing people.
- Reduce office background noise, such as music.
To build a deaf inclusive workplace, support should be a continuous process. Discuss adjustments regularly with your team to set the norm that it’s okay to request and receive support at work. If an employee accesses adjustments, make sure to check in regularly and adapt if necessary.
With these structures and habits in place, you can remove barriers that deaf people face in the world of work, and foster an organisation where everyone can contribute fully.
Backing it up
Action on Hearing Loss (2020) Employer’s Guide: Supporting Employees who are deaf or have hearing loss to thrive at work. RNI:D
Baldridge, D. C., & Kulkarni, M. (2017). The shaping of sustainable careers post hearing loss: Toward greater understanding of adult onset disability, disability identity, and career transitions. Human Relations, 70(10), 1217-1236.
Haynes, S., & Linden, M. (2012). Workplace accommodations and unmet needs specific to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, 7(5), 408-415.
Families & work institute. (2020) ‘Opportunities and obstacles: Life on and off the job for employees with disabilities.’ Families and Work Insititute
Padkapayeva, K. et al. (2017) ‘Workplace accommodations for persons with physical disabilities: evidence synthesis of the peer-reviewed literature’, Disability and Rehabilitation, 39:21