September is Deaf Awareness month. The purpose of Deaf Awareness is both to highlight issues deaf and hard-of-hearing (HoH) people face, and to celebrate Deaf culture—a culture with its own values, social behaviors, art, history, and languages. About 1 in 20 Americans is deaf or hard-of-hearing, so even in a small company odds are good you have at least one deaf or HoH employee! As with any other disability, in the workplace, many of the barriers deaf and HoH people face can usually be overcome when accessibility is addressed. And many of the typical accommodations that make the workplace more accessible to deaf employees, such as closed captioning, benefit other employees as well. In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss why accessibility in general is so important for any organization, as well as things you can do to specifically address the needs of deaf and HoH employees.
Accessibility Benefits Everyone
Next month, October, is also national Disability Employment Awareness Month. People with disabilities are already the nation’s largest marginalized group. With the long-term or even permanently disabling effects of COVID in some who have survived the virus, the number of disabled employees has been on the rise. When it comes to the benefits of workplace disability accessibility for both employees and organizations, the numbers speak for themselves: 89% of employers who include disability in their overall talent strategy saw better employee retention, 72% saw an increase in employee productivity, and 46% witnessed an improvement in employee safety.
Specific Ways to Make The Workplace Deaf Accessible
When we think about disability accessibility in the workplace, what generally comes to mind are things like wheelchair ramps or braille signage. But for deaf and HoH employees, there are additional things to consider.
Start with the recruitment process and ensure you’re sharing your commitment to disability inclusive hiring, as well as an email address or accessible phone number (TTY) on any materials. This gives candidates the opportunity to request an accommodation, such as an interpreter, if they need one. During the interview process, provide candidates with a written copy of the interview questions that they can refer to. Explain to them that it is important to you and the company that they feel welcome and able to interact to their full potential. Ask them what the company could do from their perspective to achieve this.
In the working environment, a number of simple but highly effective steps can be easily put into place. Let’s talk about communication. Disability inclusive workplaces will always ensure that any important information is relayed via text, whether that is in printed or email form. There are a variety of communication tools that can be put into place. In addition, deaf or HoH employees will likely need to have a clear view of people who are speaking if they rely on lip-reading. An effort should also be made to reduce any kind of background noise, such as music, that could interfere with speech interpretation.
Other steps you’ll want to take:
- Speak directly to the person instead of their interpreter
- During video calls, look directly into the camera when speaking
- Make sure that only one person speaks at a time
- If someone is writing on a flip chart, do not turn your back to the audience while speaking
- Take minutes or notes during meetings and have them distributed
While there are a lot of remote-work applications that have options for built-in live automatic captions, including Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Google, keep in mind that captions are not always accurate. This can cause miscommunication and frustration for everyone. During video calls, making sure that team members address the camera when speaking may help. In addition, using person-to-person written communication such as Zoom’s Chat function or Slack can be helpful if the automatic caption doesn’t properly interpret someone’s speech. Employees who use ASL may wish to have an interpreter for large in-person meetings, or some remote meetings if they are working from home. It should be noted, however, that the cost of hiring an ASL interpreter can be prohibitive, and may not be an option for some organizations.
Employee safety should also be a priority. If you do have a deaf or HoH employee in your workplace, ensure that any type of emergency communication system takes them into consideration. This would include flashing lights with a fire alarm and emergency text alerts. Also, a tour of the exits can be part of their onboarding or orientation program. It is also important to make security personnel, janitorial and parking staff aware that you have a deaf employee.
Ultimately, the best way to create a workplace that is inclusive of deaf and HoH employees is to start by asking them what kind of tools they need to be successful. They will be the experts on what works best for them. Start with addressing their immediate needs and go from there. You will be setting your deaf employees up for success, and everyone in your organization will benefit from a more inclusive workplace.
I’m Dr. Sangeeta Gupta, and I founded Gupta Consulting Group to help CDOs and HR leaders create and implement DEI programs that meet their organization’s unique needs.
Schedule a conversation with me today to learn more about our DEI solutions.