Communicating With Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing Colleagues
Overcoming Hearing Loss Challenges
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton; actors Rob Lowe and Robert Redford; composer Danny Elfman; actresses Marlee Matlin, Halle Berry and Jodie Foster, and athlete and U.S. congressman Jim Ryun.
What do these accomplished individuals have in common? They are among the estimated 360 million people worldwide who have experienced hearing loss. As their success demonstrates, people who are deaf or hard of hearing can thrive in many lines of work.
In this article, we'll explore what it means to be deaf or hard of hearing, how this can affect people in the workplace, and how to provide a positive, accommodating working environment for those with hearing loss.
What Is Hearing Loss?
With an aging workforce more prone to natural hearing loss, and with numbers of occupational hearing-loss issues on the rise, it's important to understand how this might affect your team members. According to a 2014 survey, more than 10 percent of full-time U.S. workers have been diagnosed with hearing loss, and another 30 percent believe that they have an undiagnosed condition.
People with hearing loss fall into two broad categories: deaf or hard of hearing. The National Association of the Deaf uses "hard of hearing" to describe people who have some ability to hear, and "deaf" to refer to people who cannot use hearing to communicate or process information.
Within these categories, people experience varying degrees of hearing loss. For example, some may struggle to pick up sounds that fall within a certain range of volumes, others can use hearing aids or other devices to improve their hearing, and some are profoundly deaf.
Some people may also have difficulty speaking, depending on when their hearing loss occurred and its severity. However, many deaf or hard-of-hearing people communicate through sign language, lipreading and other technology-assisted means, regardless of their degree of hearing loss.
Avoid using the term "hearing-impaired," because many people feel that it focuses unfairly on what people with hearing loss cannot do. It also implies that someone who is hard of hearing is somehow inferior to those who are not.
Workplace Challenges for People With Hearing Loss
People who are deaf or hard of hearing can face a number of challenges at work, because their ability to communicate in a typical business environment may be limited.
For example, they might experience difficulty in an office with lots of background noise, poor acoustics or echoes. They may also have trouble understanding speakers or presenters who talk quickly or quietly, or who interrupt one another, particularly if they are not within line of sight or if they don't lipread.
Certain standard office equipment may not be suitable for people with hearing loss. For example, they may not be able to participate in conference calls or virtual meetings without special hardware or software, and they might miss audible cues from their computers or other devices.
People with hearing loss may feel like they miss out on important business conversations, or other information that they need to do their job. And, if colleagues don't include them in social events or even water-cooler discussions, they can feel like outsiders.
These limitations can be stressful, and might also reduce their productivity and harm their job performance. As a result, they could become disengaged at work.
Strategies for Working With People With Hearing Loss
Follow these seven strategies to work effectively with deaf or hard-of-hearing team members.
1. Open a Dialogue
Start by learning more about your hard-of-hearing team member's requirements and preferences. Be careful not to make assumptions about what he or she might need; it's always best to follow his lead.
Ask how he would like you to get his attention, by waving or tapping him on the shoulder for example, and about his preferred method of communication, such as email or instant messaging.
2. Create a Positive Work Environment
Loud sounds, including external ones such as car horns and sirens, can bother people with partial hearing, and ambient noise or vibrations can also distract those who wear hearing aids. For this reason, an open plan office can prove challenging. So, put your team member's workstation away from noisy areas such as break rooms or copy machines, and make sure that people don't use loud radios near her. Ensure that she doesn't have her back to the rest of the office, or consider installing a mirror, so that she can see people approaching.
3. Provide Assistive Equipment and Technology
Make sure that your hard-of-hearing team member has the necessary equipment to perform his job. There are a number of technologies that you can use to facilitate communication.
For example, specially designed telephones can translate spoken words into text, and help him communicate with colleagues and customers. Skype® or IM will allow him to send and receive typed messages, or he could use a captioned telephone that transmits a live text translation using voice recognition software. Another option is to install a headset that's compatible with hearing aids, or a device that lights up to indicate an incoming call.
Before you invest in any assistive equipment, ask your team member what would work best for him.
4. Don't Alter Your Normal Speaking Habits
Many people raise their voices or speak slowly when talking to a person with hearing loss. Neither is helpful, as shouting can distort your voice, exaggerating your words can change your lip movements and affect a person's ability to lipread, and slowing your speech may seem patronizing.
You can help lipreaders on your team by following these tips when you talk:
- Focus on speaking clearly, at your usual speed.
- Maintain eye contact.
- Don't eat or chew gum.
- Use short sentences.
- Avoid jargon.
- Use body language and facial expressions to convey your tone.
When you communicate through a sign language interpreter, continue to talk to your team member directly, and take a deep breath between sentences to allow the interpreter to catch up.
5. Use Written Forms of Communication
Relying primarily on oral communication can exclude a hard-of-hearing team member from conversations, and make her feel that she isn't a valued part of the group.
6. Offer Accommodations for Team Meetings
Before meetings begin, ask everyone to speak up so that the whole room can hear. You should also remind them to maintain eye contact, avoid interrupting one another, and not to cover their mouths when they talk. Provide an agenda and any other written materials in advance, and ask someone to transcribe the meeting and share their notes afterwards.
In larger meetings, it's generally best to seat your hard-of-hearing team member as close to the speaker as possible, and consider hiring a sign language interpreter for her, if appropriate. Assistive-listening devices that amplify the speaker's voice and transmit it directly to her ear are also useful. You could also consider using Communication Access Realtime Translation to translate spoken words into text.
7. Ease the Transition
If you have a new team member with hearing loss, use the following strategies to help him adjust to the work environment.
Raise your team members' awareness of his needs, ask people to wear name tags for his first few days, and consider assigning him a "buddy" to show him around. This person can also take responsibility for notifying him in the event of an emergency.
Provide written signs and give directions to simplify navigation around a larger office, and speed up his adjustment by labeling various items that might be unfamiliar to him.
Be careful when you make any accommodations for people with hearing loss or any other disability. It may be against your national or state law to share a person's private medical information, or to inform others that someone has a disability, without their permission.
With more than 10 percent of U.S. employees experiencing hearing loss and with an aging workforce, you'll likely work with a hard-of-hearing team member at some stage of your career.
Introduce inclusive strategies, so that team members with hearing loss don't feel marginalized. Open a dialogue about her preferred accommodations, provide assistive equipment or technology for tasks and meetings, and use written communication where possible. You can also educate your people about their colleague's needs, and take steps to help new deaf or hard-of-hearing team members adjust to the workplace.