Breaking the silence: a spotlight on employees with hearing difficulties

Have you ‘heard’ that deafness and hearing loss are more prevalent than we think? Perhaps not, because it is rarely discussed in the media or the workplace.

According to the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), 12 million adults in the UK are deaf, have hearing loss or tinnitus.

The RNID reports an estimated 1.2 million adults in the UK have hearing loss severe enough to be unable to hear most conversational speech.

It is rare to find employees with hearing impairments discussing the hurdles they encounter at work. It is time to break the silence surrounding the challenges they face.

By doing so, we can create genuinely inclusive workplaces.

D&I Clinic: Hearing loss

There is a whole range of people who are deaf. Those born deaf learn signing and then British sign language (BSL) – those who become deaf struggle.

It is easy to overlook the enormous effort deaf people make to communicate. It requires high levels of concentration. It is, by default, demanding.

Although some have perfected the art of lip-reading, many find it extremely difficult. When they mishear or mistranslate something, they often feel inadequate and begin to withdraw.

Seven tips to connect effectively with deaf colleagues

People who are deaf want you to feel comfortable communicating with them as you would with anyone else. So, why not reciprocate by:

  1. Finding a suitable place to talk away from noise. Avoid standing in front windows or bright light to prevent shadows from obscuring your face.
  2. Ensuring you have their attention when speaking so they know you are starting a conversation.
  3. Rephrasing what you have said when necessary.
  4. Not mumbling or waffling. Speak clearly and use plain English.
  5. Writing things down on paper or device screens. Provide hard copies of essential information for meetings.
  6. Using an interpreter when required.
  7. Being inclusive by learning basic signs like ‘hello’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

In addition, when asked to repeat something, never say 'it doesn’t matter', because it does matter.

Also, be willing to learn from colleagues with hearing impairments to develop ways to communicate effortlessly.

Employees with hearing loss face stigma at work

Dealing with hearing disabilities

With 1.2 million adults living with severe hearing loss, to the extent they cannot hear most conversational speech, it is possible that you or someone you know is being affected by the condition.

Someone else may notice problems with your hearing before you do.

So, it is helpful to know the signs of hearing loss.

The National Health Service lists common signs of hearing loss.

They include:

  • Difficulty hearing clearly and misunderstanding what people are saying, especially in noisy places and at social events.
  • Asking others to repeat themselves.
  • Difficulty hearing on the phone.
  • Struggling to keep up with a conversation.
  • Feeling tired after having to concentrate while listening.

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must make reasonable adjustments for people disabled by hearing loss.

Employers must ensure they are not put at a ‘substantial disadvantage’ compared with hearing people.

Reasonable adjustments may include:

  • adjusting the layout of a meeting room and using good lighting to help everybody see each other clearly,
  • modifying a job to take hearing loss needs into account and

using a loop system and other technologies that transmit sound directly into hearing aids.

Making the recruitment process inclusive for deaf employees

Employers can apply for a UK government Access to Work grant to make reasonable adjustments. The grant also covers the cost of hiring interpreters for those fluent in BSL or need a lipspeaker.

We all want to be heard and understood. When we take action to make the lives of colleagues with hearing disabilities easier, we break the sound barrier – we create a genuinely inclusive workplace for everyone.  

Sue Tumelty is founder and executive director of HR Dept