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The world of remote working for Deaf employees

The latest government advice surrounding the coronavirus pandemic is that those who can work from home should continue doing so, and this means the ‘new norm’ of remote working is likely to remain for quite some time.

Though more emphasis has been put on ensuring Deaf employees receive the support needed to work from home this year, more needs to be done.

Here are some of the main things employers should be aware of to ensure home working is as accessible and inclusive for Deaf employees as possible.

Employers knowing their obligations

The pandemic has forced many employers to re-examine their obligations in line with Equality law. All employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove, reduce or prevent the obstacles employees may face as a disabled worker, where it is reasonable to do so.

The term ‘reasonable adjustment’ is open to interpretation, however the aim must be, as far as possible, to remove or reduce any disadvantage faced by Deaf worker(s).

Much will depend on the size of the company; the type of work employees carry out and the availability of financial support. But it is crucial to be aware of these obligations and to make any additional adjustments as required to provide extra support for Deaf employees adjusting to a home working structure.

Fulfilling duty of care

Employers have a duty of care to their employees and must take all necessary precautions to ensure both the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff.

Mental health issues are on the rise during the current pandemic, and Deaf people are twice as likely to have mental health issues compared with hearing people, with communication barriers exacerbating symptoms like depression.

Work-related stress or depression can manifest itself in different ways, and the signs can be even harder to spot when Deaf employees are working remotely and face-to-face contact is only possible via a computer.

Now it is arguably more important than ever to regularly check in with Deaf workers to ensure their workloads are manageable and reassure them that support is available if they need it.

Get to know employees’ requirements

Hearing loss is a hidden condition and there is a possibility that employers may not be aware of Deaf employee’s unique access requirements as they may not have disclosed these openly. Therefore, employers should ask all staff if they have any requirement to enable equal access to virtual online content, meetings etc., and find adjustments that work for them.

It is important to understand that not all employees with hearing loss will have the same needs and preferences, for example, some may prefer lip reading [although this can be challenging when communicating via video].

Profoundly Deaf employees will prefer to access information and join discussions using online British Sign Language [BSL] interpreters and note takers.

Additional challenges faced by Deaf employees

Learning how to communicate with video conferencing tools like Zoom can be a challenge for any staff member, not to mention if you are Deaf or have difficulty hearing.

It’s vital that employers opt to use a suitable platform for meetings that enable user-friendliness for Deaf employees as their accessibility, security and quality features vary widely.

The InterpretersLive! service, powered by Starleaf, delivers real-time access to qualified and registered British Sign Language [BSL] interpreters using a secure encrypted and ISO27001 accredited, HD quality video platform.

One thing that is not always considered is visibility when hosting meetings online. Employers or other team members need to consider their clothing, lighting, quality and security to help their Deaf colleagues.

Clothing should be plain and there needs to be sufficient lighting in the room to reduce shadows on faces. The camera should be kept at an angle so that Deaf employees have a clear view of their team member’s face(s).

BSL is a moving visual language, so choosing a HD quality platform and using a secure and stable internet connection is vital for online lectures to be accessible to all.

Hearing colleagues should also be briefed on behaviour changes to make virtual meetings more accessible for Deaf team members, including speaking one at a time, muting themselves when not speaking to reduce background noise, having a clear agenda to provide structure and contextual clues to what is being said.

Whilst remote working is new for some businesses it is most likely here to stay, and many companies will continue taking advantage of working from home protocols in life after lockdown.

By understanding Deaf employees’ requirements, employer obligations and choosing the right technologies, not only will employers ensure inclusivity for all employees, they will improve the health, wellbeing and productivity of Deaf staff members both throughout the pandemic, and into the future, too.

Clare Vale is managing director of Sign Solutions