Don’t make assumptions about people who are deaf

December 2023

We asked three NSW Government employees who belong to the deaf community to share their diverse workplace experiences with us. Simone* works in community engagement, Tang* is an IT professional and Liz* is a case worker. 

Their stories highlight some simple ways for employers, managers and colleagues to help ensure that people who experience hearing issues are not prevented from doing their jobs and participating fully in their teams and workplaces. 

Ask, don’t assume

Liz, Simone and Tang all agree that lack of understanding and people’s assumptions are big issues. They say it’s important for team leaders to be proactive and ask questions, to be willing to learn and to try to understand a person’s disability and what it means for the person and for their team.

Simone says that there is “definitely no one size fits all” when it comes to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It’s important to recognise that each individual is different, and that their needs may be different on different days, in different contexts, or as the years go by.

Liz says people are sometimes confused that she uses lip reading and hearing when communicating with hearing people and speaks or uses sign language to different degrees in other situations. 

Be respectful, considerate and flexible

Balancing the needs of clients, stakeholders and everyone in a team can be challenging. But Liz, Simone and Tang all agree that it simply comes down to being respectful, communicating honestly, and being prepared to be flexible and open-minded.

Liz, Simone and Tang all speak of the fatigue and sensory overload they experience daily as their eyes, for example, work extra hard. They explain that it’s important for colleagues not to underestimate this, and to consider it when arranging meetings, for example.

Liz mentions that she can’t switch off loud sounds, so when people around her put their phones on speaker, for example, it can be difficult for her to concentrate. Her colleagues are aware of this but sometimes forget.

Liz also says that something as simple as being able to choose where to sit in the office, for example where the light is right for her and she can see people approaching, can make a real difference.

Liz asks people to be conscious of trying to speak clearly. “Your speed, tone and volume all matter,” she says. She recalls a meeting that she was advised to leave “because we’ll be doing some fast talking”, which made her feel excluded and upset.

Use technology but understand its limitations

Liz, Simone and Tang say that email and other communication and collaboration technology helps them to participate equally. Tang comments that he “usually feels more included online than in person”.

Liz, Simone and Tang all say, however, that technology can have limitations for deaf or hard of hearing people that others might not realise. Sound quality in webinars and online meetings can be poor, for example, and inadequate background lighting can make it difficult for someone who relies on lip reading.

Simone says that people often assume that she will be fine in online meetings or presentations as she can use auto-captions, but these are often wildly inaccurate. It can also be difficult to see captions, depending on how many people are on camera, for example.

Liz adds that MS Teams can be difficult for someone relying on a sign language interpreter if they are not always visible.

Follow best practice for meetings

Liz points out that many things that make life easier for people with disability make life easier for everyone, for example following best-practice meeting procedures. 

Liz says that chairing meetings effectively to ensure equitable participation is important.

Planning meetings in advance and sending out the agenda and information or documents to be discussed in the meeting as early as possible, helps all attendees to properly prepare and makes a meeting more productive. 

Liz, Simone and Tang all talk of meetings often being called, changed or cancelled at the last minute. This makes it extremely difficult for them to prepare for the meeting or arrange an interpreter if needed.

Liz says that choosing a venue appropriate for the needs of all attendees is vital. She says that being able to choose where to sit in a meeting is important to her. 

Understand the use of Auslan interpreters

Simone, Tang and Liz talk about some issues that people who need Auslan interpreters commonly experience.

Auslan interpreters are in high demand, and reasonable notice is needed to be able to book one, or to change a booking. They are also expensive. Tang and Simone both speak of using their total annual Job Access funding in a couple of months, resorting to using their personal NDIS funding and missing out on participating in certain work activities for the rest of the year.

Liz also tells of her request for an interpreter sometimes being denied or questioned, through a lack of understanding about why she requires one in some but not all situations.

Tang says that “all interpreters are not equal” it’s important for individuals to have a say in who is used, and their choice may change depending on the context. 

However, he says it would be good if the responsibility did not always fall completely on the employee. Liz agrees and says that at least when it comes to events such as conferences, the event organiser should take responsibility for accessibility, including arranging appropriate interpreters if required.

Share the responsibility

Liz, Simone and Tang all speak of having the responsibility for organising what they need to do their jobs effectively. 

Liz says that “always having to advocate for myself… it’s exhausting.”

Tang says that when he started his role, he was readily approved to use an Auslan interpreter “as long as I organised everything.” 

Liz, Simone and Tang also speak of being expected to educate their managers and colleagues. While welcoming the chance to raise awareness and help to change perceptions and workplace cultures, they also find it can consume additional energy that they can’t always spare. High staff turnover can also mean that it’s frustrating to do it repeatedly.

Part of the solution to this is ensuring proper training for colleagues and managers. Simone says general disability awareness or confidence training is too broad. She says training tips and videos that specifically address working with people with hearing loss are valuable.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals

Information alert

For more workplace adjustment information, NSW Government managers and employees can visit the Public Service Commission website or contact their Diversity & Inclusion, Work, Health & Safety or HR teams. You may also wish to reach out to your Disability Employee Network (DEN).

If you have trouble accessing workplace adjustments or experience disability discrimination at work, please contact Anti-Discrimination NSW on 1800 670 812.

Last updated:

01 Dec 2023

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