Deaf Awareness Week UK: How employers can support their deaf employees

Accessibility consultant and lip-reader Molly Watt talks deaf and hard-of-hearing inclusion at work

The workplace can be a busy and noisy environment, so to support deaf or partially-hearing employees, employers need to consider how they champion these members of staff.

Support needs to start with organisational leadership and filter through the entirety of the workforce. The aim is to ensure everyone is conscious of the practices that will make life easier for their deaf colleagues, allowing them to work cohesively with wider teams and excel in their professional development.

As a deafblind employee, working in an organisation with a solid understanding of how to ensure every member of staff has equal opportunities has been incredibly valuable to me. It demonstrates that it only takes small considerate changes to truly include deaf colleagues as part of the team.

Every deaf person is different, and there is a huge range of needs among the community – some people use sign language, some don’t, some may lip-read, and others may not. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to making the workplace accessible and comfortable for deaf employees.

The new remote and hybrid working world brings about another set of challenges for employers to think about to make companies deaf inclusive. Most importantly, it is crucial to ask any employee with a disability or additional needs what will make them most comfortable – it is not something that someone without those needs can guess.

1. Background noise

For people who struggle to hear, excess background noise will only worsen the problem. If a meeting or conversation is going on with a deaf employee involved, either ensure there is no loud background chat or move the meeting to a quieter area so this is minimised. If you have the radio, TV or music on in the office, consider turning this off, or at least down, to make hearing and being included that bit easier.

2. One person at a time

Discussions and a flow of creativity are central to many businesses, but people can tend to start talking over one another in group activities and meetings. For deaf employees, this can make the conversation difficult to follow and participate in, for both in-person and remote video call discussions. To keep the conversation inclusive for all, be mindful about how many people are speaking and make sure employees, deaf or not, are empowered to flag when people are starting to talk over one another.

3. Think about how you are speaking

Sometimes, deaf colleagues may ask you to repeat what has been said and when this happens, you should repeat speaking clearly, but without shouting. Talking clearly and not too fast is essential for keeping deaf employees involved in conversations and contributing confidently. This is important for in-person conversations, but even more so during remote meetings where sound can drop or connection falter. There is also a lack of visual body language cues for people to rely on.

Another tip is to avoid acronyms unless they are properly explained; letters can easily be misinterpreted and misunderstood. It is helpful when a conversation stays on topic and is not too random – that can be a cognitive overload for lipreaders!

4. Mind your mouth

As a lip reader, it is always useful for me to have a clear sight of people’s mouths when they are talking. In person, this means not covering your mouth, and if your workplace is still asking people to wear masks, there needs to be lenience for those who rely on lipreading. Eye contact and looking in our direction is also really helpful as it is a physical cue for someone speaking to you and will help with lip-reading.

During remote meetings, keeping the camera on at all times and ensuring there are no shadows over lips is really helpful as well. If you need your deaf colleague’s attention, a wave, gentle tap on the shoulder, or even a “meet upstairs in two minutes” Teams message will suffice.

5. Notes, captions and transcripts

The ability to go through written records of spoken conversations in my own time is really valuable and helps me a lot with my work. At Nexer Digital, a project manager will usually write up notes when we meet with clients for the benefit of the whole group, but I find it hugely helpful in making sure I’m up to speed with the outcomes of the meetings when I am not familiar with a client’s voice or accent.

A notetaker is beneficial at both in-person and remote meetings. Turning on live captions in remote meetings or preparing them for shared content is helpful, and transcriptions, which Teams does very well, give further context and allow us to see who spoke when to better grasp how the conversation is flowing.

Many things, in my experience, can and should be done to make deaf people feel more at ease and supported in the workplace. As I work for a business that really focuses on uplifting people with different life experiences, these measures are in place and are a huge help in my day-to-day work life.

Simple changes have the potential to vastly improve the overall experience of deaf employees and support their personal and professional development, but only if employers are putting them at the centre of the conversation and taking their true needs into account.

By Molly Watt, a usability and accessibility consultant at Nexer Digital.

In this article, you learned that:

  • During meetings, stay on topic and avoid acronyms unless they are properly explained, as this can be an overload for lip-readers.
  • Having someone write up notes to share after a client and internal meetings is helpful for all employees, but especially for deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
  • When conducting meetings, step in when people start speaking over each other as this can be confusing for deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.

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