How to support deaf people in the workplace

Deaf people can face discrimination and bias in the workplace. In some cases, this can begin as early as the recruitment process.

Keep reading to learn more about what deafness is and how to support deaf employees in the workplace.

What is deafness?

It is important to understand that there are different types of deafness and different ways that d/Deaf people describe themselves.

Deafness occurs when one or more parts of ear are not working properly. This can impact the two main functions of the ear, which are:

  • Receiving and converting sound into signals for the brain to comprehend
  • Supporting physical balance

Understanding the different types of deafness

There are two main types of deafness. It’s possible to have both types, and this is known as mixed hearing loss.

Sensorineural hearing loss

This is caused by damage to the hair cells inside the inner ear, or damage to the hearing nerve, or both.

It makes it more difficult to hear quiet sounds and reduces the quality of sound that you can hear. Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent, but can often be treated with hearing aids

Conductive hearing loss

This happens when a blockage, such as ear wax, stops sound passing from your outer ear to your inner ear.

Sounds will become quieter and things might sound muffled. It can be temporary or permanent. Conductive hearing loss is usually caused by ear problems.

Describing people who are deaf

When describing people who are d/Deaf, you may have noticed the change in the title case. Take a look below at what the various terms mean and how they differ.

Deaf (using uppercase D)

Deaf with a capital D describes people who were born Deaf or were Deaf before they began to talk. It is likely that Deaf people will use sign language as their first language. Their spoken language is their second language.

People who are Deaf are also likely to be highly engaged with the Deaf community (although this can vary depending on the individual’s environment and access to resources) and if their Deafness forms an important part of their culture and identity.

deaf (using lowercase d)

Using a lowercase d to describe deafness refers to the physical condition of hearing loss. Those who refer to themselves as deaf may not feel as strongly connected to the Deaf community and may not use sign language as their primary communication method.

Hard of hearing

People who identify as hard of hearing may have mild-moderate hearing loss. They are unlikely to use sign language as their preferred method of communication.

It will depend on the individual’s experiences and choices as to whether or not they identify as Deaf and engage with the Deaf community. Someone can be hard of hearing and identify as Deaf.

d/Deaf

Using the lower and uppercase d/D is a way to include everyone within the d/Deaf community when we talk about deafness.

People who are d/Deaf may be able to communicate through a variety of methods such as speech, Sign Language, written word, lip reading, hearing aids and hearing loops or a combination of these.

What is deaf discrimination?

People who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing are defined as disabled and are protected under the Equality Act 2010 and are entitled to equality of opportunity without discrimination.

According to 2020 figures 11 million people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing and this community are 12% more likely to be unemployed

d/Deaf discrimination can take many forms. Examples include:

  • Communication discrimination – where access is not made possible for deaf people to communicate
  • Making assumptions – it is common for other people to make assumptions about the capabilities of d/Deaf and hard of hearing people, as though their being d/Deaf makes them less able to do certain things.
  • Feeling sorry for people because they are d/Deaf. Many people are proud to be part of the Deaf community – everyone will feel differently but do not assume deafness is a curse and something to be sorry for.
  • d/Deaf and hearing discrimination at work – employers should never make assumptions about what d/Deaf and hard of hearing people are able to bring to the workplace. A Totaljobs survey found that 56% of respondents had experienced deaf discrimination at work.
  • Audism – the belief that the ability to hear makes people superior to those who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing.
Two people laughing together while signing in conversation.

Understanding workplace struggles for deaf people

Difficulty with access to work for d/Deaf people happens at every stage of the employee journey. A recent survey by the Royal Association for Deaf People revealed that a lack of awareness among employers was a serious barrier to employment and career progression.

The study highlighted the following statistics:

  • 63% reported they had not been given equal opportunities at work
  • 83% felt excluded from conversations with colleagues
  • 69% reported feeling lonely at work
  • 59% had been left out of social events

There can be barriers to employment for d/Deaf and hard of hearing people before they enter the workplace. There are many ways employers can understand and improve disability recruitment practices.

People will be ready to disclose their deafness to new or potential employers at different times, which can make arranging interviews challenging.

d/Deaf people may be apprehensive of how their potential employer may react to a request for an interview method that suits their communication style, fearing others preconceptions and deaf discrimination.

d/Deaf people experience many microaggressions and the impact of implicit bias from employers, such as doubting their abilities and denying them opportunities because they as employers don’t feel equipped to support them.

By understanding the barriers to employment, we can create more deaf-friendly jobs and employers.

How to be a deaf friendly employer

To be inclusive of all d/Deaf people, there are many ways to become a deaf-friendly employer and prevent deaf discrimination at work.

Be fair in your recruitment process

Consider what adjustments you can make to improve access to work for d/Deaf people in this initial phase of the employee life cycle. Is your website accessible and deaf-friendly for job seekers? Does your website actively encourage applications from a diverse range of backgrounds?

Talk directly with interviewees to find out what communication style will suit them best – be clear that you want to get the best out of them and provide the environment for this to happen.

Don’t make assumptions about what individuals need. As we have learnt above, there are different types of deafness and hard of hearing and individuals within these communities will have different preferred ways of communicating.  

Organisational learning and development  

Organisational learning and development should be in place to support d/Deaf employees, both current and prospective.

This is so that organisations, leaders and people managers especially, are equipped with skills to be inclusive from recruitment to managing an employee.

Find communication methods that work

People within the d/Deaf and hard of hearing community will have different communication needs. Educate yourself about the different communication methods for deaf people so you know what methods will need to be considered. These may include:

  • Sign language interpreters – there are two main sign languages; British Sign Language (BSL) and International Sign Language
  • Lip speakers – using clear lip shapes, facial expressions and gestures to communicate what is being said
  • Electronic notetakers – they can type a summary of the spoken word onto a computer using specialist software
  • Speech-to-text reporters – use a phonetic keyboard to capture a word-for-word recording of speech, which can then be linked to a communication screen.

Eligible employees are entitled to practical support in the workplace through the Access to Work scheme. This could include a grant to improve communication methods for d/Deaf people, including BSL interpreters and some of the other examples listed above.

Learning how to communicate with d/Deaf people in your employment will enable them to give their best and your organisation to get the best from them.

Have a safe and open workplace                              

The work environment can have a big impact on d/Deaf and hard of hearing employees’ experience.

The Access to Work scheme can also provide workplace assessments to ensure that d/Deaf employees get the best support for their needs and that workplace barriers can be removed. Workplace assessments are also available from specialist organisations.

Here are some things you may need to consider to support d/Deaf and hard of hearing employees:

  • Improve the acoustics: soft furnishings like carpets, install acoustic panels and fit rubber caps on chair and table legs.
  • Layout and positioning: make sure your d/Deaf employee is working in a space that has good acoustics and where they can see the rest of the room clearly. Think about the layout of meetings – can everyone be seen clearly? If a d/Deaf or hard of hearing person needs to lip read it will be important for them to see everyone’s faces.
  • Music: music in the workplace should be played at a low volume or turned off completely.

Be open to reasonable adjustments

Not only are employers required to make reasonable adjustments for people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing under the Equality Act 2010, but being a deaf-friendly employer is the right thing to do to create an inclusive, thriving workplace.

By talking to your d/Deaf employee and considering all the points outlined above you will be able to develop an understanding of what reasonable adjustments they need in order to do bring their best selves to work.

Raise d/Deaf awareness

By raising awareness of d/Deafness and hearing loss in your organisation you will be taking a step to becoming a more deaf-friendly employer.

If colleagues and managers know more about deafness and how to communicate with d/Deaf employees they will be more confident to engage with them and d/Deaf employees will feel supported and safer at work.

You could raise awareness by:

  • Sharing this article
  • Asking a d/Deaf colleague to share their story

How Inclusive Employers can help you become a deaf friendly employer

The team of expert consultants at Inclusive Employers can support you to become a d/Deaf friendly employer and create more opportunities for you to improve your work place for d/Deaf people.

Members can access our d/Deaf awareness resource for free. You can also learn more my reading our top tips for disability inclusion at work.

Non-members learn more about how membership can support you and get in touch today.