Deaf people in employment

Julie Ryder

02 / 5 / 2016 Midnight

Julie Ryder is the founder and managing director of HearFirst Training and Consultancy.  After the trauma of losing her hearing in her 20s, she felt driven to educate and encourage service providers to consider the needs of deaf and disabled people. 

Julie and her team of tutors (who have disabilities themselves) develop tailored training solutions and support clients to become more diverse, equitable, accessible and inclusive. 

As a deaf business owner, employing other deaf people has seemed a natural thing to do. That’s not the case for all employers – why would you hire a deaf person when you have scores of hearing people knocking on your door?

I could tell you about their eye for detail, good problem solving skills or the benefits of having a staff team which better reflects the diversity of your customers.  Or I could tell you about your social responsibility as an employer.  I’m not.  I’m going to share with you my story of employing four deaf and very different people and what I’ve learnt along the way. 

My first deaf employee, William, came on board for the simple reason that he had the skills we needed to expand our product range.  In the early days of the business I was working as a sole trader delivering deaf awareness training to corporate clients.  For the business to grow, we needed to offer a broader range of courses and William had the perfect skill set to move our business forward.  He was born deaf and had very clear speech, a relevant university degree, experience across the spectrum of disabilities and more creativity than I could ever hope for. 

So why did he leave us? I assumed he would be happy (or even thankful) to continue in our environment - deaf awareness was embedded within our team, the office environment had quality lighting, good acoustics and very little background noise. All good. What I hadn’t considered was his need to progress and grow as a person. 

Just because you meet someone’s access needs, remember they still have needs not related to their disability
Alison filled the gap left by Will.  After leaving Uni, she was desperate for someone to give her a chance and she had great British Sign Language skills (BSL), which we needed.  It turned out a good move as clients enjoyed working with a native BSL user. As time went on, I gave Alison more responsibility.  That was a first for her and perhaps it came too soon.  Often  young deaf people don’t have enough work experience opportunities as they grow up, other people can have low expectations and then over praise them.  It all makes for a large leap into the adult workplace where maturity and professionalism are key to successful employment.  

Discuss and be clear what you expect beforehand

While Will and Alison have moved on, I still employ two deaf people.  Dave became deaf as a teenager after a bout of meningitis.  He communicates via his cochlear implant, speech and uses some BSL.  He has the skills and knowledge we need but he’s assertive too and this is the key to his success in employment.  We always try to meet his needs but if we fail, he tells us and we listen.  Problems get nipped in the bud before they become issues. 

Listen and encourage assertiveness in employees

Our most recent recruit is Sharon.  Sharon was born deaf, is a BSL user and has autism.  An employer might hesitate employing someone with one disability, never mind two, but in all cases it’s about whether the person can do the job, not what disabilities they have. Sharon is our cleaner and the routine of this work suits her.  She doesn’t get bored or distracted and keeps her focus until the job is done.  To make this into a successful role we’ve made adjustments.  The key one was creating a book with a photo and the order of each room to be cleaned.  Basic words for the areas which needed cleaning were written on the relevant pages.  The effort of making the adjustments has been outweighed with the success of her performance. 

Focus on what a person can do and support them to flourish

So it turns out that successful employment is about people, their skills, their preferences and a healthy two way relationship with their employer. (That includes making adjustments needed to create accessibility.) Isn’t that the same for everyone?  It’s not a question of why would you hire a deaf person – the questions is, why wouldn’t you?

For specific ideas on adjustments for deaf and hard of hearing people, read HearFirst's top tips

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