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Ready to Be Heard

HR Magazine, September 2004Learn how to communicate with deaf and hard-of-hearing employees

Five years ago, Jeff Braun, lab manager, and Laurie Matteson, assistant lab manager, started working together in a Lenscrafters store at Eastview Mall in Victor, N.Y. That alone might not be noteworthy, except that Matteson is deaf and that their working relationship has turned the store into a model for how Lenscrafters and other businesses can tap the skills of employees who are deaf and hard-of-hearing.

It's a model that started simply enough with the need to hire a new staff person. We were looking for new recruits, and Laurie mentioned a guy at NTID [National Technical Institute for the Deaf], says Braun. We decided to interview him. For me, the interview process was intimidating.

Although Braun was quite comfortable communicating with Matteson, the applicant had a slightly different communication style that was initially challenging for Braun. But as the interview went on, Braun became more comfortable.

I realized this was just a guy looking for a job, he recalls. You start looking beyond the fact that they cant hear. They see I'm doing my best to understand. You get past the communication barrier, and everything becomes easy.

Now, Braun's lab employs six deaf and hard-of-hearing workers. All of [my employees in] leadership roles are deaf, Braun says. The only hearing people in my lab are me, two part-time techs and one part-time tech who knows sign language.

The success at Braun's store is one that other employers would be well advised to attempt to repeat, especially since competition for labor is expected to increase, and individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing represent an underutilized market.

Hearing loss affects 28 million people in the United States about 10 percent of the population, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, one of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. It is difficult to determine the rate of unemployment among deaf workers because 54 percent of deaf and hard-of-hearing adults are not in the labor force either by choice or necessity according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md. However, experts say that unemployment and underemployment are significant in the deaf community.

Before I even get to a job interview, I am often asked, How do you communicate? How can we interview you? says Jamie Berke, who was born deaf and writes articles about deafness for the informational web site in Springfield, Va. In a recent phone call, the recruiter said to the relay operator, Is she deaf or mute or what? I've learned not to be offended; it is just a question due to lack of deaf awareness. This concern about communication is why it is hard for deaf people to get jobs.

But its a concern that employers can and should address.

Today, deaf and hard-of-hearing employees can do anything their hearing peers can do, says Kelby Brick, director of law and advocacy for the National Association of the Deaf in Silver Spring, Md. The biggest limitations are not a result of hearing loss, but [of] a lack of awareness.

For example, you may be concerned about being able to communicate with applicants and employees who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and may worry that accommodating them will prove costly or disruptive. But you can learn to communicate with this often-overlooked segment of the labor force and help your hearing employees do the same with some simple adjustments, assistive technology or, when appropriate, specially trained interpreters.

Recruiting the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing

Unless you already have deaf and hard-of-hearing workers at your organization, the first challenge you'll face is the applicant interview. If the employer knows ahead of time the individual is deaf or hard-of-hearing, they should ask the applicant what types of accommodations will be needed, says Barbara Borich, deaf services coordinator at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

For example, the Lenscrafters crew works together to make sure the process goes smoothly. Laurie and I do a lot of interviews together, Braun says. If I'm having problems [communicating with a deaf applicant], Laurie will interpret for me. Experts at the NTID Center on Employment at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York offer the following tips for interviewing the deaf and hard-of-hearing:

  • When setting up the interview, ask the candidate how he or she would prefer to communicate.
  • Ask if the applicant would like to have a sign language interpreter present. If so, schedule an interpreter. (For more information, see Sign Language Interpreters.)
  • Inform the receptionist that you are expecting a deaf candidate.
  • Find a location with good lighting.
  • Provide a list of the standard interview questions.
  • Provide company literature and a written itinerary if more than one person is conducting the interview.
  • Position the interpreter next to the interviewer so the candidate can look easily at both individuals.
  • Clarify whether the applicant will speak for himself or herself, or whether the interpreter will voice what the applicant signs.
  • Make eye contact with the candidate.
  • Address your questions directly to the candidate, not to the interpreter.
  • When not using an interpreter, speak clearly and slowly, and use body language and facial expressions to help convey meaning.
  • Encourage the deaf individual to let you know if your communication is unclear.
  • Rephrase statements and questions, if necessary.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Use paper and pencil, if necessary.
  • Keep objects away from your mouth so the applicant can lip-read.
  • Ask to see the candidates portfolio.
  • Ask the candidate to demonstrate skills during the interview by operating a piece of equipment or software application.

Once you've addressed any issues that applicants may have hearing you, be sure to listen to them and​ focus on their abilities.

Evaluate the candidates potential just as you would any other applicant, says Tracie DeFreitas Saab, human factors consultant/clinical instructor for the Job Accommodation Network, a free consulting service from the federal Labor Departments Office of Disability Employment Policy in Morgantown, W.Va. Look past the disability and recognize the skills the individual can bring into the workplace.

Use common sense, but be flexible, she says. Just because a position requires some telephone work may not mean the individual is not qualified for the job. What is essential and what is not? Can the function be accommodated?

Paul Brooks, disability access consultant at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says: Look carefully at job descriptions and change Must be able to use a telephone to take incoming orders to Must be able to effectively communicate information. There are a variety of methods for doing so.

Keeping in Touch at Work

HR professionals, managers and co-workers may have concerns about being able to communicate with deaf employees, but doing so is not as challenging as it may seem. Communication between hearing people and those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can take place in a plethora of ways, including via e-mail, instant messaging, sign language, speech or lip-reading, text messaging, assistive technology, or even low-tech handwriting.

Matteson, for one, has little trouble communicating with Lenscrafters co-workers and customers. All of the people on the retail floor with customers are hearing, except Laurie, says Braun. When she speaks, its obvious she's deaf. Customers have been positive and treat her as they would anyone else. Laurie has a good sense if she feels the customer isn't getting his point across, and shell look for someone to help her.

Experts suggest various ways to help ensure good communications.

When communicating with hard-of-hearing individuals, pay attention to extraneous noises like copiers, says Saab. Move the conversation away, if needed.

When conducting group meetings, take steps to ensure that deaf or hard-of-hearing employees can participate fully. In group settings, the deaf person needs to know who is speaking each time, says Allen Vaala, director of NTIDs Center on Employment. Give workers preprinted copies of the agenda for group meetings and hold meetings in a semicircle so deaf employees have a better view of other participants.

Another way to ensure good communications is to provide some simple physical accommodations. Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals use visual cues more than their hearing colleagues, says Brick. So employers could install brighter lighting and place furniture in visual lines across the room to make it easier for hard-of-hearing or deaf employees to see.

Borich adds that many people with hearing loss rely on speech reading. To make speech reading easier, experts recommend that you:

  • Gain the deaf persons attention by tapping gently on his or her shoulder or arm before starting a conversation.
  • Speak normally and clearly.
  • Avoid chewing gum, smoking or eating while talking.
  • Never stand with your back to a window--the combination of background glare and having your face in the shadows may make it difficult for an employee to read your lips.
  • Never put your hands in front of your mouth.
  • Use different words to clarify instead of merely repeating words that are difficult to lip-read.
Another step HR can take is to provide sign language classes for interested employees and managers. Encourage your deaf worker to teach fundamental signs, says Vaala. Many [companies] hold brown bag lunches to teach sign language specific to the job.

For example, Braun, who can finger spell, learns signs from his co-workers.

Its typically awkward and uncomfortable for the hearing employee who finds himself or herself in a situation with a deaf worker for the first time, Vaala says. However, the deaf employee understands that and appreciates any effort to communicate.

Some organizations recognize the potential for awkwardness, but they don't know how to handle it. Berke, who is a graduate of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., recalls an interview with a well-known technology company. They asked me back for a second interview, which was not an interview at all, she says. They took me around to meet people. The people I met were clearly uncomfortable with a deaf person. I was not offered the job, and I chalk up that missed opportunity to a lack of awareness. Preparing employees for welcoming a deaf co-worker is like a teacher preparing a class for a new student.

Safety and Social Concerns

Safety concerns are another surmountable roadblock for employers. How will deaf and hard-of-hearing employees know the fire alarm is ringing? A flashing light should be fitted on any device that could be a health or safety issue for example, a light that flashes when machinery is operating, recommends Borich.

At Lenscrafters, we installed an emergency light in the bathroom that flickers in case there's a fire, so deaf workers know to come out, says Braun. We usually use a bell to indicate when there is a tray in the window. Now we've eliminated the bell and installed flashing lights to indicate there are jobs ready to be run. Its more of a reminder for hearing people, too, rather than hearing the bell once and its gone. Overall, we didn't spend more than $500 [in accommodations], says Braun.

HR should also make sure that deaf and hard-of-hearing professionals are included in the social aspects of the workplace.

A lot of socializing goes on at work over lunch, chatting about corporate issues, Vaala says. Look for situations where deaf workers accidentally could be excluded, such as coffee breaks, and invite them along.

Borich points out that because sign language is fundamentally and grammatically different from English, it can sometimes create distance between hearing employees and those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Using a different language [sign language] than the majority may cause feelings of isolation, she says.

Feeling excluded is something Berke is familiar with. The deaf employee often struggles with feeling left out, she says. I asked for small meetings to be held online--a cost-free solution involving a chat room but the staff did not want to give up face-to-face contact. So they excused me from the meetings, but this made me feel left out and may have hurt my career advancement, she says.

A New World

Employers tell us that deaf workers bring a different kind of preparedness to the job and have a good work ethic, Vaala says. Perhaps its because they've been used to facing challenges throughout their life and have positively approached situations with a can-do attitude.

In addition, deaf and hard-of-hearing workers can open up a new market for your business. For instance, at Lenscrafters, Matteson is studying to become a licensed optician. Our goal is for her to have her own clientele, explains Braun. We would be known in Rochester as the place where deaf people can come and get their glasses and not have to deal with communication barriers.

The benefits extend beyond the bottom line. Working with [deaf professionals] has been a lot more fulfilling than I ever thought, Braun says. They're my good friends and have made a difference in my life. I find myself being more patient [as a result of working with them]. I've met some outstanding people that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet [otherwise]. They've​ exposed me to an entirely different world. Berke says, Having a deaf person in the office does present minimal challenges, but these can be overcome with simple solutions. The small cost involved is worth it in return for a productive deaf employee.

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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Becoming Aware

Unlike blindness, there is no legal definition of deafness, so it is difficult to characterize. Audiologists measure hearing levels in decibels. For example, if you had an 80-decibel hearing loss, you would not hear someone speaking, but you could hear a jackhammer.

In general, individuals with hearing loss can be divided into two groups: those who are hard-of-hearing and those who are deaf. The term hearing impaired is considered insulting and negative. Many members of the deaf community do not perceive hearing loss as a disability; they view their condition more like an ethnic culture.

Individuals with significant hearing loss are distinct in the way they choose to identify themselves, explains Barbara Borich, deaf services coordinator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The term Deaf usually refers to a specific group of deaf people who use American Sign Language as their primary mode of communication and who share a culture. There are varying degrees of hearing loss and a multitude of hearing amplification systems that help people to understand speech.

Sign Language Interpreters

While American Sign Language interpreters may be required for specific circumstances, employers need not hire one on a daily basis, says Allen Vaala, director of the National Technical Institute for the Deafs Center on Employment in Rochester, N.Y. In most situations, deaf and hard-of-hearing employees can use other means of communicating. However, when an interpreter is required, employers can locate them through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Inc., which is based in Alexandria, Va.

Hire an interpreter for the [applicant] interview and maybe for the training period, recommends Ila Burgess, a freelance sign language interpreter in Commerce, Mich. Make sure an interpreter is available for large meetings, job performance reviews, benefits explanations, etc.

Interpreters can cost between $30 and $100 an hour. Many interpreter agencies charge a minimum, such as two hours, even if you only need the interpreter for 15 minutes, says Burgess.

Also, not all employees who are deaf will needor can benefit froman interpreter. Some individuals have never used sign and would not understand it, says Tracie DeFreitas Saab, human factors consultant/clinical instructor for the Job Accommodation Network, a free consulting service from the federal Labor Departments Office of Disability Employment Policy in Morgantown, W.Va.

For example, Jamie Berke, who was born deaf and writes articles for the informational web site in Springfield, Va., prefers technology to interpreters. At one workplace, they tried providing me with an interpreter for large meetings, but I dont receive interpreters well and prefer visual writing, she says. The free solution was having someone voluntarily type on a laptop next to me.


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