Nancy Chovancek: How to make your workplace more friendly to deaf and partially hearing people

Posted on May 28, 2015

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If you’re like me—and hopefully you’re not—you’ve lived most of your life in a cubicle.

Just like a mouse, you scramble from one cubicle to the next, going about your daily job description, and handling tasks—sometimes two, three or ten at a time.

I was a Project Manager for a large telecom company a number of years ago. Handling up to sixty projects per day and dealing with hundreds of phone calls, conference calls, people screaming in, at, and over my cube asking for information made it a stressful job.

I thrived under pressure. But, when I started to lose my hearing, I began to miss things—important details—necessary for me to ensure that a project was handled correctly.

Now that I’m part of the hard-of-hearing community, and also well aware of how it was when I was able to hear with no problem, I began to think of the obstacles that face those who are completely deaf, wear hearing aids, or cochlear devices.

If you’re a person who works with a deaf person, or if you are a deaf person yourself and work with people who find it difficult to communicate with you, the following tips on being able to work cohesively, being interviewed for a job, and most importantly, understanding how to communicate effectively with a deaf person while working—which is 80% of your life by the way—should be helpful.

It’s Time for a Meeting

Oh, God. Another meeting. Another conference call. This will be two hours of my life I’ll never get back. In order to make the best of things in a group situation with deaf people try these suggestions:

1. Ask the deaf person to choose the best seating for communication. If you’re like me, you’ll want to sit as close to the speaker as possible. “Speaker” not only refers to the person running the meeting, but also the conference call phone that’s normally placed on a huge table with twenty chairs around it.

If there is a real person holding the meeting in the room, sit where you can see their lips. Hopefully, the table is round or at least semi-circular so that you can read others’ faces. This way, you can see the agonizing, brooding, crestfallen and hostile looks on their faces. I mean, they are wasting two hours of their life they will never get back just like you.

2. Be aware that one person should only be speaking at a time during the meeting. Now, I realise this may be difficult for some tense meetings, especially if you have to deal with the guy who always talks over others’, but it would definitely help a hard-of-hearing person to articulate what is being said without overlapping chatter.

3. Speak clearly and in a normal tone. For hearing people, it doesn’t help to raise your voice to the point of cracking plaster off the walls for those who are either deaf or have hearing devices. Psssst: deaf people can’t hear you, and those who have hearing devices think that raising your voice makes them have migraines.

Moving on…

You Have An Interview! Yay!

It’s awesome that you finally got an interview, huh? That job sounds pretty nice, and it would be a great opportunity to let your skills shine through.

In order to make this a successful interview, let’s use some one-on-one tips to facilitate it with a deaf or hard-of-hearing job applicant. Basically, this section is for those who are in Human Resources, or in a hiring capacity so listen up (no pun intended).

1. Provide some company literature for the applicant to review before the interview. This helps the individual learn more about the company, go onto the website and do some research and become familiar with their mission statements, policies, etc.

2. Provide a written itinerary. If the applicant is going to be interviewed by more than one person, it would be a good idea—no, an excellent idea—to give him/her a list of names, titles and meetings times.

There are times when speechreading an unfamiliar person’s title and name during a meeting is difficult, so the itinerary allows the applicant to be prepared. Being prepared allows them to be at ease and follow up later, if needed.

3. Inform your assistant before the interview that you are expecting a deaf or hard-of-hearing applicant for an interview. This will trigger the assistant to speak clearly to the applicant and look directly at them when talking.

4. Consider providing an Interpreter. If the applicant needs someone to sign, provide an Interpreter to perform the conversation on your behalf.

You Got The Job! Time to Go to Work

The American Disabilities Act (and to a degree, the Equality Act in the UK) guarantees equal opportunities in the workplace for people with disabilities.

1. Noises can be troublesome

If you think that deaf people can’t hear anything, you’re mistaken. It’s a misnomer. The reality is that most deaf people have some residual hearing and can be bothered by loud noises. For myself, I don’t hear much at all when my cochlear devices are out, but I “feel” the noise; pulsating, throbbing, or even pounding.

When I wear my cochlear devices—or even when I wore hearing aids—noises can be very troublesome. Loud or background noises can interfere with and distort sound amplification for those who wear hearing aids. If you wear cochlear devices, you are now hearing through your brain.

The loud noises become taxing on your brain to the point where some people either get migraines or have vertigo episodes (like myself).

2. Think about safety. Make the environment safe by installing signaling devices like a flashing light. That blue “beacon of hope” will save their life if there is a fire.

3. Use paging devices for deaf employees. Text messages for alerts or communication—especially if you work remote and not in the office—are much better than using the phone.

4. Always include deaf employees in social activities. The one thing hard-of-hearing or deaf people are aware of is being isolated from social situations because we simply do not hear or understand the conversations going on around us. Even though we may not always understand what’s being said, it’s always nice to be invited and to feel like part of the group.

5. Communication should be short and simple. Communication should also be done either face to face, in writing, or using visual representations. I mean, you don’t have to use finger puppets, but that would be fun regardless.

In all seriousness, please don’t turn your back on a deaf or hard-of-hearing person when you’re talking. They won’t understand what you’re saying.

Lastly, in order to ensure that the deaf person heard you correctly, ask open ended questions. Asking questions that require a simple, “yes” or “no” may lead to miscommunication—especially if the deaf person is new to the job.

Good luck!

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