The COVID-19 pandemic and recent lockdown have forced most of us to change the way we live and work. Teleconferencing and virtual meetings are more popular than ever, masks have become standard office wear, and remote workplaces have forced us to find new ways to collaborate from miles apart. These modifications have allowed many employees to more or less carry on with their job duties. But for deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) employees, these changes present an added level of disruption to an already unsettling time.
Your organization likely has at least one employee with some degree of hearing impairment. Forty-eight million people in America, including 26 million adults between the ages of 20 and 69, have hearing loss. Many of these deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals rely on visual cues, such as lip-reading and sign language, to understand what a speaker is saying. When these visual cues disappear—say, by a mask covering the speaker's mouth, or a grainy video conferencing feed—the person with hearing loss can struggle to follow the conversation.
Employers have a legal obligation to make reasonable accommodations that enable employees with disabilities, including hearing loss, to succeed in the workplace. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires employers to level the playing field for all people with disabilities by providing them with "reasonable accommodations." These are changes to a position or workplace that will enable an employee to do their job, despite having a disability.
So what accommodations do the deaf and hard-of-hearing need during COVID-19? It depends. Employees with hearing loss have varying needs based on the degree of their hearing loss and the nature of their employment. Still, some accommodations are nearly universal, and they're especially crucial for success during public health emergencies and in remote-first settings.
7 Ways to Include Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Employees
1. Use clear masks.
One of the most well-documented pandemic challenges is communicating through masks, which can obscure the mouth. Standard face coverings make it impossible for people who read lips to see people's mouths. They also hinder facial expressions, which are critical elements of communication when using sign language.
One solution is to purchase face coverings that are partially or fully transparent. These allow communication partners to read lips and see facial expressions through the built-in "window." A variety of options are available, from handmade masks (which are adequate for most environments) to medical-grade equipment for healthcare settings.
Remember that masks muffle sound, making it more difficult to understand speech and some higher-pitched voices. While it is not necessary to yell or over-enunciate, speaking at a slightly louder and slightly slower pace is often helpful.
2. Use written forms of communication.
If a DHH employee is unable to understand their colleague, consider using written communication. For brief conversations ("How many units did you sell today?" or "Carlos is out sick. Please cover his route."), a written exchange is often sufficient. More extended questions or instructions, especially those containing essential details or where the employee will ask questions, should take place over email, instant messaging, or text message.
3. Ask what method they’d like to use for remote conversations.
Ask your employee what method they would like to use for remote or socially distant conversations. Some may be fine with a standard telephone call, while others want to use a relay service, where an operator transcribes what the hearing individual is saying and verbally relays what the deaf person has typed. Video calls may also be an option, as they contain a visual component for the deaf or hard-of-hearing employee to read lips.
4. Choose accessible video conferencing tools.
One common mistake is assuming that video conferencing contains all the visual information a hard-of-hearing person needs. That's not always the case. A poor WiFi connection on either end of the conversation can result in a low-resolution feed, and pixelated lips can be hard to read. Low lighting, ambient noise, people talking over each other, screen-sharing, and looking away from the camera while speaking (for example, to read notes) also affect a DHH employee's ability to follow the conversation.
If you're regularly conducting video conferences, account for these details and choose a platform with built-in live captioning. This feature allows users to opt-in to captions generated by speech recognition software, which auto-scroll during the call (much like closed captions on a television screen). These free options are not perfect at transcribing, especially with specialized jargon or technical terminology. If your budget allows, hiring a transcription service (which uses humans instead of software) for important meetings can yield more accurate captions.
Consider recording your video meetings and conference calls. Making these available to a deaf or hard-of-hearing employee after the meeting's conclusion can be helpful, as taking notes (written or typed) requires the deaf person to look away from the speaker and miss portions of the conversation. If you pre-record video or audio instructions for your staff, make sure to provide captions or a transcript.
5. Space out meetings.
Even people who aren't deaf can attest to the fact that "Zoom fatigue" is a real phenomenon. Meeting online takes up a lot of cognitive space; more so for those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, as many visual cues, both overt and subtle, are lost when a three-dimensional speaker takes a two-dimensional form. Limiting the number of video meetings in a day, as well as using messaging and email, can assist with managing this fatigue.
6. Check your organization’s ADA compliance.
ADA rules can be confusing and overwhelming at times. If an employer is unsure which accommodations are best suited for a situation involving a deaf or hard-of-hearing employee, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) can help.
7. Be approachable, patient, and understanding.
It's hard to ask for help, especially when the help feels like being singled out for a circumstance that doesn't affect other employees. This experience can make some deaf and hard-of-hearing employees reluctant to approach their managers and supervisors.
Be proactive in seeking input and feedback from your employees with hearing loss. By creating an inclusive environment, you benefit employees with hearing loss and the organization as a whole, helping every individual perform to the best of their ability—even in a global pandemic.
Susan Lacke is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist. As a deaf person in a hearing world, she is passionate about helping business leaders make equity and inclusion the default, not an afterthought.