Blog post

Improving deaf awareness in the workplace

Sam Penney is a staff nurse with severe hearing loss. Sam shares some of the challenges she has faced and encourages everyone to be more deaf aware.

28 May 2021

At the beginning of the pandemic, management were making changes to appointments, from face to face to telephone consultations. I was very adamant that we had to think outside the box and consider those with hearing loss and cater for their needs by conducting video consultations instead. I offered support and wrote some tips (which are included below) on how to best communicate with patients and staff who have a hearing loss, especially in the new situation having to wear masks.

The challenges

Due to COVID-19, I was redeployed as I am unable to lipread when masks are worn. From May to December, I worked on a medicine safety project, with a team of nurses who had also been redeployed for various reasons. I was offered the use of an office, so that background noise could be kept to a minimum. I find this helps on video calls to enable concentration. I can hear some sounds, so when communicating with people at a distance, a lot of noise is very distracting. I find it difficult to ignore background noise and struggle to tell different sounds apart.

Video calls on MS Teams were very challenging, many colleagues didn’t understand that I needed to lipread them. Lighting and distance from the camera also affect the quality of communication.

Location of workstation – being able to see

A few months down the line, I moved into the vaccination hub as it was more hands on. Consideration had to be given with regards to the number of work stations in the room, and the positioning of my station – I like to see everyone in front of me, and not to have stations behind me, so that I can be visually aware of everything happening. 

Noise levels, visors and lipreading     

I have found it difficult to try and understand what is being said when people are wearing masks and visors. It was very hard to control the noise level - nurses were talking louder with their visor on, so that affected the person next to them talking, as they also needed to be heard! I suggested to my colleagues to remove the visor, as it makes it sound less muffled.

If people want to talk to me, they need to remove their mask and wear a visor or speak to me at a two-metre distance so that I can lipread - the recommended distance for people to lipread is one metre. People have got used to wearing masks now and can easily forget to remove it when speaking to me.   

Using physical gestures to communicate

When I meet my patients, I run through a form using closed ended questions - the patient can shake / nod their head to answer. Anything above that, my administrator who uses a visor will repeat, and then I can lipread them. 

Ear Stickers

I recently introduced ear stickers to the trust. This was to alert others of the person’s hearing loss, so that effective communication can be carried out - this has been well received by patients and staff. This is still on trial, but hopefully this can be taken forward throughout the hospital.  

Extra support

There is a staff disability network within the trust, so I gained support from a few members in the group, and also gave support to other staff with a hearing loss.

I have held a deaf awareness session virtually for my trust and have also helped secure ten ipads that can be used within the hospital for deaf patients, relatives and staff. Speech to text and interpreter apps can be used on these.

I have also become part of a new Facebook group called UK Deaf Healthcare Professionals, which has a good supportive network, and we share information and help support each other.

I feel it is important to have role models to show support and encouragement, which in turn will help the NHS become a better place for our patients and staff within the trust.

Here are just a few suggestions on how to improve the experiences of both colleagues and patients who have hearing loss:

  • Hold deaf awareness sessions for staff and managers to improve their understanding of the issues facing those with hearing loss.
  • Have dedicated ipads that can be used within the hospital for deaf patients, relatives and staff. Install speech to text and interpretation apps.
  • Consider the introduction of stickers to alert staff and patients of a person’s hearing loss, so that effective communication and services can be carried out.
  • Be aware that material masks cause issues for those that lipread – try use a clear visor or remove your mask.
  • Video calls – consider the position of your camera and lighting to enable someone to lipread. Also, the number of people in the meeting – the screen reduces in size the more people join, therefore making it harder for someone to lipread.
  • Office environment – consider the position of desks and noise volume to support those with hearing loss.

It’s been a very challenging and stressful time and like everyone, I can’t wait for the masks to go!

Further information

Access guidance on supporting staff with disabilities in the workplace