Tips for Supporting d/Deaf Employees & ASL Signers

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Tips for Supporting d/Deaf Employees & ASL Signers

By providing captioning, asking employees for accommodations they need, offering assistive technology, and speaking up for d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees, you can make your workplace much more accessible and inclusive.

May 11, 2023

Amy Wood contracted meningitis when she was just 5 months old, leaving her completely deaf in her right ear and giving her 98% loss in her left. While she benefits from wearing a hearing aid, she has a difficult time processing higher-pitched sounds and voices compared to those on the lower end.

Just like many professionals who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing, she’s experienced her own unfair share of discrimination and inaccessibility in the workplace. But despite the barriers and exclusion she’s faced, Wood has forged a successful career in marketing, communications, and now, as an accessibility manager for Salesforce.

As she states in her LinkedIn bio: “I’ve been the only person on my team with a disability 99% of the time. I never challenged that reality for fear of jeopardizing my job or the camaraderie I wanted to have with my team. I accepted the circumstances that made me feel smaller and laughed at jokes that were not funny–jokes where my deafness was the punchline. I did it because so few people were like me or shared any measure of commonality with my disability and barriers in a hearing world.”

However, as her “accomplishments and influence grew, so did [her] confidence in advocating for [herself] and anyone else with a disability.”

Wood was eager to talk with InclusionHub about the major obstacles d/Deaf employees face in the professional world, and outlined several things organizations can do to better support them, becoming more accessible and inclusive for all.

Challenges d/Deaf Professionals Face in the Workplace

For many professionals who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing, colleagues overlooking their disability can make social interactions and meetings inaccessible.

“Even with the best of intentions, it can be forgotten that I am deaf,” says Wood. “Popcorn conversations can happen a lot, people talk over each other, making it difficult to follow along.”

Because someone’s hearing loss is not always apparent to others, people often fail to take into account the needs of d/Deaf team members. This routinely occurs during meetings.

“I remember attending a summit that took place in a really large room,” she recalls. “It was a huge space and some people were sitting so far away that I couldn’t lip read or hear them very well.”

These challenges, however, aren’t reserved only for in-person interactions. While captioning is more common now on virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet, it can be frustrating when they aren’t available.

Wood reflects on a virtual job interview with a potential manager who had no idea she was deaf:

“The hiring managers joined the Zoom interview in a boardroom far away from the camera. I ended up having to ask her to move closer to the camera so that I could read her lips and understand her better. It was mortifying to have to ask the hiring manager to move her seat during an interview.”

Fortunately, Wood was eventually hired, and more inclusive virtual meeting processes and interview protocols have since been put in place to make sure the hiring experience is more accessible at Salesforce.

Common Misconceptions About Employees Who Are d/Deaf

Wood acknowledges that team members and employers are becoming more aware of what the workplace is like for professionals with disabilities. While there are a lot of good intentions out there, misunderstandings still abound regarding what is actually helpful for d/Deaf employees.

“I think the number one misconception people have is that I know sign language,” she says. “I grew up in a hearing family and was mainstreamed in school. American Sign Language was not an available resource for me as a kid.”

Because of this, it's important for colleagues to ask which communication medium is preferred by d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing professionals. Otherwise, assuming an employee or coworker needs a sign language interpreter ends up being counterproductive.

Another common thing people will do believing they’re being helpful that often makes communication more difficult is modifying their speech patterns.

“When people find out that I'm deaf, they tend to talk louder and slower, and that actually makes it harder to read lips,” Wood says. “Speaking clearly and regularly is more effective than shouting and mimicking sign language.”

Tips for Supporting d/Deaf Professionals

There is an abundance of options for organizations seeking to be more supportive of d/Deaf employees and ASL signers.

Provide Captioning as Much as Possible

If employers and managers are looking for the fastest way to make their workplace more accessible for d/Deaf professionals, captioning everything possible is a great place to start.

Wood explains Salesforce now has roles set apart specifically for making meetings and events more accessible, including an interpreting and captioning program. Employees can now use a simple ticketing process to schedule a sign language interpreter and/or captioner from the vendor of their choice.

This also applies when working with clients. Wood recommends companies include captioning on demo videos and websites.

“There's a huge benefit to having everything captioned,” she says. “It’s a really great way to be more inviting to the d/Deaf community. If I see captions on something, I'm immediately going to watch it to see what it's about.”

In fact, 50% of Americans without hearing loss watch content with subtitles “most of the time,” according to a 2022 survey of 1,200 Americans conducted by Preply, a language learning app. Millennials and Gen Z are even more likely to use captioning subtitles—53% and 70%, respectively.

Ask for What Accommodations Employees Need

To demonstrate a willingness to be a more inclusive employer and establish a more accessible workplace, Wood believes the number one thing you can do is ask what accommodations potential and current employees need.

“It takes the guessing game out of it for you,” she explains. “By asking somebody whether they need an accommodation related to a disability or medical condition, you’re opening a world of possibilities for people with disabilities."

Even better, you can hone in on the exact accommodation someone may need.

“For someone with hearing loss,” she continues, “you’ll know if you need to schedule a sign language interpreter or a human captioner, and communicate any particular needs to the hiring manager.”

Make Panels Accessible

When it comes to hiring, you may wonder if panel interviews are an inaccessible practice for someone with hearing loss. While one-on-one interviews can be more straightforward, Wood believes panel interviews work well when best practices are followed (speaking one at a time and utilizing the hand-up feature to avoid interruptions).

Provide Assistive Technology

Whether it’s screen readers for desktops or apps for mobile devices, providing assistive technology can make a monumental difference.

“I have an app on my phone that helps transcribe when people are speaking,” explains Wood. “It's AI-powered and not always accurate, but it's a great help in giving me more context when I can’t hear or understand dialogue.”

There are tons of captioning apps that you can buy on a tablet or an iPhone. There's even an app that can connect you with a sign language interpreter.”

Speak Up for d/Deaf Team Members

Being a supportive ally of professionals who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing means anticipating potential barriers and advocating for team members.

“I remember my old coworker would speak up on my behalf [without drawing attention to me],” Wood says. “She would ask people to enable captions on Zoom. She kept the room noise level low so I could hear the speaker. She kind of acted on my behalf in some ways that I didn't feel comfortable speaking up for myself, which I really valued and cherished.”

In many ways, it doesn’t take a lot to create a more inclusive and accessible working environment and remove discriminatory practices from your workplace. It just requires a bit of awareness and a willingness to invest in your employees.

Salesforce is a founding partner of InclusionHub, a resource for digital accessibility, dedicated to helping businesses prioritize digital inclusion. To learn more about implementing policies and practices supportive of d/Deaf employees and ASL signers, visit Salesforce’s a11y website.

Written by Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey Howard is a senior inbound content developer at Hypha HubSpot Development and regular contributor at InclusionHub.

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