Unless the past two years have slipped your mind, the changes made in professional settings due to COVID-19 have been metamorphic. The global shift to working remotely created a new environment for employees to work together no matter where they are. However, the transition to a higher-tech workspace has not been revolutionary for everyone. Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees have quietly slipped through the cracks, leaving them at a disadvantage in comparison with their hearing coworkers. The fact of the matter is our current business atmosphere does not facilitate equal opportunities for Deaf personnel. Deaf people are already hired far less often than their hearing competitors, even if the Deaf person is more qualified. This leaves a distinct discrepancy between Deaf and hearing unemployment rates. Moreover, hearing-impaired individuals are left without adequate accommodation for their disability. If they need assistance obtaining accommodations, the responsibility most often falls on the employee.

Where the Common Issues Lie

Although one would think online work would be easier to navigate, Deaf employees still encounter communicative problems as they did pre-pandemic. As communication over Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet increases, comprehensible interaction with Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals decreases. Without reliable access to total body language, facial expression, or visual aid, it has become more difficult for these workers to remain significant contributors to their teams compared to their prior involvement. Although virtual work has encouraged frequent written communication, this is not always ideal. Since auditory methods of interaction are not possible for these employees, options for communicating with their teams are beyond limited.

In a virtual workspace, hearing individuals could infer that lipreading is the best way to bridge the language barrier between them and their Deaf coworkers. Contrary to popular belief, lipreading is considered one of the least effective methods of communication between Deaf and hearing people. This can often be less efficient and more time-consuming than writing notes or messaging back and forth.

When their jobs were in-person, Deaf employees had immediate access to one-on-one conversations. Now that they are remote, a Deaf employee trying to read the closed captions (that are often inaccurate) for a meeting where multiple people are talking over each other is like a hearing individual trying to pay attention to a room full of conversations without knowing who said what. This leaves them at a significant disadvantage without some form of written accommodation or change in meeting etiquette. Imagine if a hearing employee working from home were to attend a meeting and their coworkers were to exclusively sign in ASL, it would be exceedingly difficult for them to complete their assigned tasks, grasp important concepts, or interact with a majority of their coworkers.

How We Can Grow

The current working environment for Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals is not accessible. Without a significant shift in the corporate agency of businesses today, Deaf employees will be unable to match the effectiveness and productivity of their hearing coworkers. Although businesses want to ensure an even playing field for employees of all hearing capabilities, the knowledge on how to accommodate these workers is not widely communicated.

In the pursuit of an equitable working environment, how can someone in a managerial position make their workspace more Deaf-friendly?

  1. Provide an alternate method of obtaining information from meetings. Whether their coworkers volunteer to take notes or you turn on automatic closed captioning during a meeting, it is imperative that your Deaf employees have access to the same information as your hearing employees.
  2. Encourage your hearing employees to speak one at a time. Oftentimes, closed captioning can only pick up one, maybe two, voices at a time. Urge your employees to speak in an orderly fashion. Thus, if Deaf workers choose to use an automated CC program, they will be able to read everyone’s commentary in real-time.
  3. Wear a clear face shield. Although sign language is expressed from the signer’s hands, non-manual behaviors like facial expressions provide specific grammatical indicators, separating some signs from others. If you do provide your Deaf employees with an offsite interpreter or you know ASL yourself, consider wearing a clear face shield during meetings or in person.
  4. Maintain your presence on camera with a steady internet connection. If you are working remotely, ensure that you are fully visible on camera. Attending virtual meetings with your camera turned on can be especially helpful for Deaf employees to observe and understand your body language. Following a meeting in person is hard enough, but the additional accurate closed captions, a steady internet connection, and clear, consistent video make company conferences much easier for them to interpret.
  5. Don’t be afraid to use the chat feature. When employees see their management utilize the chat feature on Teams or Zoom, they might feel more comfortable using it too. Encouraging the use of both verbal and nonverbal communication aids in the creation of equal opportunities and ensures all employees have all of the necessary information. If a Deaf employee has any questions, they will follow your example and use the chat to communicate with you and your team in a manner you both understand.