Tapping the Untapped: Including Deaf Employees in the Workforce

By Patrick H. Hicks and Kristina Escamilla Gilmore

Diversity in the workplace benefits employees, employers and society as a whole.

Today, employers recognize the value of a diverse workforce and have made significant strides in recruiting and retaining employees with a variety of personalities, backgrounds and experiences. While corporate America’s progress in this area has been impressive, one group of citizens remains underrepresented in the workforce: deaf employees.

Current statistics indicate that America’s deaf community is underemployed and too often overlooked in a company’s diversity efforts.

Educating about employing the deaf community

An employer’s hesitation with regard to employing members of the deaf community is likely a result of honest misunderstandings about working with deaf individuals. The two most common misperceptions are:

  • That deaf individuals will be unable to effectively communicate with co-workers and/or clients; and,
  • That accommodating a deaf employee would be extremely costly.

Employers often develop and maintain these unfounded fears largely because they have not explored the benefits of working with the deaf community and means of accommodating deaf employees at little to no cost.

As a result of employer reluctance to employ members of the deaf community, the Career Center at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.— the world’s leading university dedicated to teaching and developing students who are either deaf or hard of hearing — invites employers that hire their students as interns to participate in its Deaf Awareness Workshop.

The Workshop focuses on teaching employers, and their employees (both deaf and hearing), about developing communication strategies and the types of accommodations readily available to provide to deaf employees. The Workshop is intended to ease both the employer’s concerns about the deaf workforce and the deaf employee’s apprehension about working in a hearing environment.

Communication strategies and skills

Communication is typically the most important issue for employers with regard to deaf employees. However, the Workshop highlights the importance of understanding that not all deaf employees communicate in the same manner, and recommends that employers ask a deaf employee what is his or her preferred means of communication.

One significant reason for these differences in communication preferences is that some deaf employees may have varying degrees of hearing capabilities, while others do not have any hearing. Additionally, some deaf employees are very oral, while others do not communicate verbally.

Similarly, some deaf employees may have excellent lip-reading skills, but lip reading has its limitations because only thirty percent of speech sounds in the English language are distinguishable by sight alone. Other examples of available communication methods include: communicating visually with and without the use of an interpreter and communicating through written correspondence.

Because not all employers have the opportunity to attend the Workshop offered by Gallaudet University, many employers offer a similar program by having management hold an informal meeting with its staff upon welcoming a deaf employee (with his or her permission) to the workplace.

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7 tips when communicating with deaf employees

Similar to the purpose of the Workshop, management should discuss various communication guidelines and strategies to use when communicating with an employee who is deaf, including the following important tips and etiquette:

  1. One should use eye contact, a small wave, or a light touch on the shoulder to get the attention of a deaf co-worker, and the deaf co-worker will use the same techniques to get the attention of his or her hearing co-workers;
  2. Always maintain eye contact when speaking to a deaf co-worker, even when an interpreter is present;
  3. Do not slow one’s speech or raise one’s volume when addressing a deaf co-worker, unless the individual is hard of hearing and requests that his or her co-workers speak a bit louder;
  4. Use hand gestures and point to items that one is referencing in his or her conversation, including mimicking actions such as “lunch” or “type”;
  5. Use visual aids, such as a PowerPoint presentation or a written agenda with notes;
  6. During meetings, in order to assist an interpreter to help a deaf person who may be able to lip read, enforce a rule that only one person may speak at a time (which can have other benefits aside from communicating with deaf co-workers); and,
  7. When a conversation between a hearing employee and deaf employee is interrupted by someone calling on the telephone or knocking at the door, the hearing employee should be sure to let the deaf employee know that he or she is stopping the communication to respond to an interruption.

Teaching these and similar communication strategies will build better relationships among all employees and allow deaf employees to actively participate with their hearing co-workers. Most importantly, when management makes it a priority to include all employees in workplace discussions, co-workers will generally be more apt to follow management’s example, creating a more inclusive environment for all employees.

Additionally, the employer will benefit from knowing how to communicate with its deaf employees because the employer will get the opportunity to take advantage of the deaf employees’ valuable contributions to the workplace.

Accommodations to provide to deaf employees

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law prohibiting discrimination against individuals that have a disability, which includes individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Title I of the ADA covers employment by private employers with 15 or more employees and state and local government employers of the same size.

In brief, under the ADA, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations that enable qualified individuals with disabilities to enjoy equal employment opportunities unless doing so would result in undue hardship (i.e., significant difficulty or expense to the employer).

Keep in mind that not all deaf individuals will require the same accommodation(s). As with the communication preferences, the employer and the deaf employee should discuss what accommodations are best suited for him or her. Examples of various types of accommodations that employers should be prepared to offer include:

  • Arranging for interpreters to be present at meetings;
  • Communicating by email, text or instant messaging;
  • Communicating in person via writing (either written notes or using UbiDuo technology, which assists deaf persons who have difficulty with writing by hand);
  • Using a video relay service for deaf employees who will be required to participate in teleconferences;
  • Arranging for a transcriber to be present if extensive notes will be needed at a presentation, conference or meeting; and,
  • Installing visual alerting devices (e.g., fire alarms with flashing lights). Employers often fear that such accommodations will be extremely costly; however, many of these accommodations use common technology that is already a part of the workplace.

Additionally, interpreters and transcribers are not usually needed on an everyday basis. While some of these options may be more expensive than others, the ADA does not require employers to use the most expensive option. Rather, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that “[w]here two or more suggested accommodations are effective, primary consideration should be given to the individual’s preference, but the employer may choose the easier or less expensive one to provide.”

Employers should not overlook the untapped pool of talented and qualified individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. There are numerous resources available to employers to learn more about working with deaf employees, and employers who include deaf employees within their recruiting initiatives ultimately strengthen the overall diversity among the workforce.

Patrick Hicks in the Founding Shareholder of Littler Mendelson’s Reno and Las Vegas offices. He is one of Nevada’s most experienced employment law litgators and trial attorneys, and he regularly appears in all state and federal courts in Nevada and elsewhere. Contact him at phicks@littler.com. Kristina Gilmore is an associate at Littler Mendelson and advises and represents employers in a broad range of employment law matters. Contact her at kgilmore@littler.com.

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