What’s it Like to Work in an Office When You’re Deaf?

Nov 28, 2016 | Articles and Publications

communicationLast month, we wrote about deaf people who own businesses, but didn’t touch on what it’s like to be a deaf employee in a company filled with hearing people. It isn’t always easy: People who aren’t deaf or have never been around deaf people aren’t naturally equipped to offer the most supportive environment.

Here are some insights on situations that are especially tough for deaf people today in the working world, and some tips for employers on how they can best accommodate deaf employees.

Facing the Challenges

Charlie Swinbourne is a journalist, director and screenwriter who writes regularly for the Limping Chicken, which publishes every weekday and bills itself as ‘the world’s most popular deaf blog.’ He recently contributed a piece to The Guardian describing challenges for deaf and hard-of-hearing workers. He had a hard time of it: “I am partially deaf, and wear hearing aids, which I use along with lip-reading to communicate. A company I worked for once moved to an office that had high ceilings throughout, and wooden floors. Easy on the eye perhaps, but sounds seemed to echo everywhere as phone calls were taken and meetings took place. I found I could not understand people unless I was right next to them, and so ultimately, I started to feel isolated, and out of the loop. I soon left the company.”

Office layout is key. Two big challenges for deaf people are open floor plans and ‘hot-desking,’ the practice many firms have of switching desks daily. Hot-desking makes it tough to communicate with your neighbor about deaf awareness or your own communication preferences because your neighbor is always changing. Open floor plans tend to spark lots of ad hoc conversations, and sometimes spontaneous meetings, which are hard for deaf people to be a part of. Genevieve Barr, a 30-year-old deaf, self-employed actress, told a career development site that the inability to participate in these sorts of conversations—as well as the inability to get a quick answer to questions from other workers in just a few seconds by picking up the phone—can be very isolating. Sharing after work activities and keeping track of group conversations can be an even bigger challenge.

Justin Smith is the International Program Manager at SignHealth, a charity dedicated to enabling deaf people to get equal access to health care and health information. He says he’s found the biggest difficulty is actually dealing with recruiters who “may have a have a fixed image of a deaf person, and what they can and can’t do.” In fact, he says, “They may often find it impossible to believe that a deaf person can manage teams and supervise others, deliver pitches or represent an organization.” He dealt with this by rewriting his resume to remove all references to his deafness, making it appear as if he was a “hearing person who just happens to know sign language.” He says this gave him immediate success in getting to second-stage interviews.

What Can Employers Do?

Day-to-day work can be made a lot easier for both employees and employer if you simply establish some communication protocols. Ask deaf employees which is the best way to gain their attention (e.g., tapping shoulder). Rely on text and email for a great deal of your communication, and in meetings, provide visual aids whenever you can. Not all deaf employees can lip read, but to assist those who can, be sure to maintain eye contact, speak slowly and communicate in places with good lighting.

Technology can make a tremendous difference. Equip employees with iPads, not just so they have an easy way to text and email, but so they can readily use VRS to communicate with remote clients and co-workers, and VRI to communicate with colleagues in the same building.

Increased Engagement

However big the challenges are, deaf people are more accepted and integrated into the workforce today than they ever were before. A century ago, in 1906, the U.S. Civil Service passed a law banning deaf people from employment. Even just a generation or two ago, it was still exceptionally difficult for deaf people to find work in companies predominantly made up of hearing people. Milestone legislations, such as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (which evolved into the Individuals with Disabilities Education [IDEA] Act), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, have helped change that.

Employers are increasingly aware of the value of a diverse workforce today, and of the unique perspective and insight deaf and hard-of-hearing people can bring to help tackle business challenges. There are lots of reasons for deaf people to be optimistic and to have courage.

“I think Deaf confidence needs to grow,” summarizes Barr.

She believes it will.

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