Charlie Swinbourne: Survey shows businesses need to change how they work with deaf employees

Posted on October 1, 2016

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This article was first published on totaljobs, and is shared here with permission.

What does work, a job, a career mean to you? Most of us hope that as well as giving us an income, we’ll enjoy our work, find a purpose in what we do, and a sense of self-respect.

But when over half of one section of the population say they have experienced discrimination in the workplace, it becomes clear that the reality of work can be far more negative.

That’s the situation facing deaf and hard of hearing people, with 56% of people responding to the totaljobs survey saying they have experienced discrimination at work because of their deafness. 25% of respondents said they had left a job as a result.

These are shocking figures that show that businesses need to change how they work with deaf employees.

437 people responded in all, across the spectrum of deafness, from sign language users to hard of hearing people, so this survey is a good snapshot of how deaf people are feeling right now.

I’ve been hearing stories of discrimination of deaf workers for years. Only last week, a supermarket in Brighton was criticised for not giving an 18 year old deaf man a sign language interpreter at an interview even though he’d made it clear he needed one on his application form.

You can hardly imagine a more vulnerable time than a job interview, so reading the statistic that nearly 40% of people had experienced discrimination at the interview stage brought back memories for me of feeling uncomfortable while being repeatedly quizzed on my hearing aids in my first job interview.

“What do you do if the batteries run out?” I was asked. “Replace them.” I replied. I got the job, but I never felt comfortable at the company, and lasted less than a year in the role.

Some of the quotes from those who have faced discrimination in their jobs really hit me. One person said: “[I am] made to feel stupid and small.”

Can you imagine spending your days at work feeling like that? Another showed why deaf people can feel isolated among colleagues: “I believe people sometimes try to avoid entering into conversations or do their best to keep conversations short.” One person went further, saying there was: “Institutional failure by employers to meet my needs as a deaf and disabled person in the workplace.”

In my experience, deaf people have to work harder than non-deaf colleagues in order to thrive, keeping up with information and even having to organise our own support (for example, booking communication support or ordering equipment funded by Access to Work).

The onus also often falls upon deaf people to make sure their colleagues become deaf aware. One respondent said: “It took three years and I had to raise a grievance to get deaf awareness training and Access to Work assessments before I was provided with equipment.”

When you’ve faced bad attitudes and discrimination due to your deafness, it’s tempting to become less open about it. 19% of people said that they had not told their employer that they were deaf.

This clearly isn’t a good thing to do – the employer is going to realise in the end – but it shows how some deaf people feel that hiding deafness could be a way of making sure you are treated fairly, at least when you first apply for a role.

Indeed, one person said: “I was concerned it would affect my chances of getting the job.” Another said, simply: “I get more interviews.” One person wrote of hiding her deafness then having to confess, and says she is more wary of hiding it now.

There were positive stories too, with several stories of good practice from managers. One person said: “My boss texts and emails rather than telephones me. All information is provided in accessible formats.” Another said: “My manager will update me one to one or give me written material that others have had verbally, [and my] manager will check I have heard info.”

Other positives were that 65% of people said that they believe developments in technology have made it easier to be deaf in the workplace than before, and 74% said they feel confident they have the right skills to look for work – although you hope that employers recognise that too.

Deaf awareness skills, being aware of deaf people’s communication needs, are relatively straightforward but they do take effort and consistent application. But deaf people are worth it.

We have so much to offer employers, and I think that aspects of deafness, and communicating differently can actually add to an organisation.

I hope this survey is taken account of by people working with deaf people, whether they are managers or colleagues, so that things improve, fast.

Read the full survey here:

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