Workplace Inclusion for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Employees
“Inclusion” is a popular word in our culture and rightfully so. Think about how you would feel if you couldn’t hear what was said at an office meeting or an informal chat in the office hallway. Although inclusion can mean many things, since September is Deaf Awareness Month, the focus of this article is how to include Deaf and Hard of Hearing employees in the workplace. For more than 25 years, I’ve worked alongside businesses who hire Deaf and Hard of Hearing employees, helping them make accommodations for communication between their hearing and non-hearing co-workers and customers. If you think about it, lack of communication is the downfall of any relationship, regardless of whether it’s professional or personal, and businesses should make every effort to include Deaf employees and customers into the fabric of their business culture.
In the not-so-distant past, it was thought that providing American Sign Language interpretation for Deaf employees during staff meetings was sufficient for workplace communication, but this isn’t true inclusivity. In the language access industry, inclusion means providing access for daily communication, including shift meetings, for a quick debrief, or any face-to-face interaction with co-workers or customers – which can be countless times in one day! Consider information shared in a HR meeting – if something is missed because of a language barrier, it could seriously affect one’s job. Language access is vital to making informed decisions.
The good news is that we have tools for providing language access, such as technology for day-to-day American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation when on-site ASL interpretation isn’t an option. But I’d like to emphasize that in-person interpretation is the gold standard, especially when a breakdown in communication can put someone in danger. For example, most injuries on a construction site can be attributed to a language gap, and the best solution for that is an on-site interpreter who can make sure instructions are clearly understood.
But for short meetings or to provide language access until an interpreter arrives onsite, the Instant Language Access (ILA) app is a good solution. When two people use the app, it can be used for instant, back-and-forth conversation in more than 250 languages, including connecting with an interpreter for American Sign Language interpretation. And unlike google translate, ILA is HIPPA compliant. Again, in-person interpretation is best, providing accuracy and privacy, but for a five-minute shift meeting, ILA is a much better option than having a co-worker write down the information for a Deaf employee, where mistakes can be made, or information can be missed.
Which brings us to a related subject -- for most people in the Deaf community, American Sign Language is their native language. And American Sign Language is a language with its own structure and syntax, meaning, it’s not English! Consider your training videos. Videos that include closed captioning for Deaf employees isn’t a good solution for native ASL users, but rather Pre-recorded Interpretation (PRI) with ASL interpretation embedded into the video is the best solution, providing the best language access.
As more businesses strive toward inclusion, it’s important to offer staff training on the proper ways to use an American Sign Language interpreter. This training should also include information that Deaf employees have heightened “visual attention” and can better detect things in their peripheral vision than hearing people, allowing them to be more aware of their surroundings and nonverbal cues.
We’ve come far in the past 25 years to provide inclusion in the workplace for Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals, but we can always do more. We can begin by providing the best means possible for language access for every interaction involving the spoken language, increasing better communication for everyone involved.
A native of New Jersey, Jennifer Quigley serves as New Language Capital’s Interpretations Operations Manager and has more than 25 years of experience in Deaf Services. Fluent in American Sign Language, she has been an Interpretation Services team member since 2017, overseeing the NYC Department of Education contract, the Interpretation Services Coordinators and interpreter scheduling.