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Supporting remote working for deaf colleagues

Clare Vale Managing Director - Sign Solutions
person using black computer keyboard

The latest government advice surrounding the coronavirus pandemic is that those who can work from home should continue doing so, and this means the ‘new norm’ of remote working is likely to remain for quite some time.

Whilst many businesses have proven just how adaptable they can be since the beginning of lockdown, the move to a home working structure has presented numerous challenges for both employers and workers, and even more so for those with hearing loss who can face barriers in the virtual working world.

Here are some of the main steps employers can take to ensure home working is as accessible and inclusive for Deaf employees as possible.

Know your obligations

As an employer, in line with Equality law you have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove, reduce or prevent the obstacles employees may face as a disabled worker, where it is reasonable to do so. The term ‘reasonable adjustment’ is open to interpretation, however the aim must be, as far as possible, to remove or reduce any disadvantage faced by your Deaf worker(s).

Much will depend on the size of your company, the type of work your employee carries out and the availability of financial support, but it is crucial to be aware of these obligations and to make any additional adjustments as required to provide extra support for Deaf employees adjusting to a home working structure.

Fulfil your duty of care

Employers have a duty of care to their employees and must take all necessary precautions to ensure both the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff. Mental health issues are on the rise during the current pandemic, and Deaf people are twice as likely to have mental health issues compared with hearing people, with communication barriers exacerbating symptoms like depression. Work-related stress or depression can manifest itself in different ways, and the signs can be even harder to spot when your Deaf employees are working remotely, and face-to-face contact is only possible via a computer. Therefore, it is arguably more important now than ever to regularly check in with Deaf workers to ensure their workloads are manageable and reassure them that support is available if they need it.

Get to know employees’ requirements

Hearing loss is a hidden condition and there is a possibility that you may not be aware of your Deaf employee’s unique access requirements as they may not have disclosed these openly. Therefore, you should ask all staff if they have any requirement to enable equal access to virtual online content, meetings etc., and find adjustments that work for them.

It is important to understand that not all employees with hearing loss will have the same needs and preferences, for example, some may prefer lip reading [although this can be challenging when communicating via video], however profoundly Deaf employees will prefer to access information and join discussions using online British Sign Language [BSL] interpreters and note takers.

Optimise technology

Learning how to communicate with video conferencing tools like Zoom can be a challenge for any staff member, not to mention if you are Deaf or have difficulty hearing. Therefore, it’s vital that you opt to use a suitable platform for meetings that enable user-friendliness for Deaf employees, as their accessibility, security and quality features vary widely.

The InterpretersLive! service, powered by Starleaf, delivers real-time access to qualified and registered British Sign Language [BSL] interpreters using a secure encrypted and ISO27001 accredited, HD quality video platform. The Starleaf platform has millions of users worldwide and is already familiar to the Deaf community in the UK, who use it to contact a range of organisations free of charge in their first or preferred language of BSL. Starleaf’s interoperability with other secure video platforms ensures that BSL interpreters can be brought into Teams, Skype for business and many other secure video platforms.

Maximise visibility

When hosting meetings online, employers or other team members need to consider their clothing, lighting, quality, and security. Clothing should be plain and there needs to be sufficient lighting in the room to reduce shadows on faces. The camera should be kept at an angle so that Deaf employees have a clear view of their team member’s face(s) and the background should be plain and well-lit for the host but more importantly for the interpreter, so the Deaf employee can clearly see the sign language and facial expressions of the BSL interpreter. BSL is a moving visual language, so choosing a HD quality platform and using a secure and stable internet connection is vital for online lectures to be accessible to all.

Hearing colleagues should also be briefed on behaviour changes to make virtual meetings more accessible for Deaf team members, including speaking one at a time, muting themselves when not speaking to reduce background noise, having a clear agenda to provide structure and contextual clues to what is being said.

Whilst remote working is new for some businesses it is most likely here to stay, and many companies will continue taking advantage of working from home protocols in life after lockdown. By understanding your Deaf employees’ requirements, your obligations as an employer and choosing the right technologies, not only will you ensure inclusivity for all employees, you will improve the health, wellbeing and productivity of Deaf staff members both throughout the pandemic, and into the future, too.

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