What is it like to navigate the workplace as someone who is blind, Deaf or has little or no speech? And how can employers improve accessibility and support the millions of Australians who have one of these disabilities?
It’s a well-established fact in HR circles that the best workplaces reflect the diversity in our society. But how true is that sentiment in your workplace? Does it hire any of the 384,000 Australians who are blind or have low vision, or any of the 1.2 million with a communication disorder, such as limited speech? What about the one in six Australians who are Deaf or of low hearing?
If you do employ someone from one of these categories, the next question to ask is, does your organisation offer what they need to get their jobs done with ease?
It’s important to note that the employees who fit into these broad categories will all have different needs – it’s important not to conflate their experiences – but with the right support from their employer, they can offer a unique set of skills that are often overlooked.
When Karen Knight graduated from her psychology degree from the University of Queensland, she didn’t waste time applying for jobs. Over the course of 12 months, she went for about 200 roles and scored ten interviews, but each resulted in a knockback.
“I left uni thinking, perhaps naively, that there wouldn’t be any barriers to getting work,” says Knight, who was born blind. “But I came across so many assumptions about things I couldn’t do.
“Common questions I was asked in interviews included, ‘How will you do the job?’, ‘How will you get to work?’, ‘How can you read?’. Similar questions are probably asked of [blind] candidates today.”
“All sorts of value judgements are made just because of the way people talk.” – Tim Kittel, national president, Speech Pathology Australia
Knight eventually got her start via a full-time volunteer role with a non-government agency, which eventually turned into a paid job.
Now she’s the general manager of client services at Vision Australia.
“Sight is often called the king of the senses. [But] if you don’t have it, you find other ways of doing things,” says Knight. “It’s this difference that brings a richness and a new perspective to conversations. Organisations can really benefit from this.”
Once people with low or no vision do get a foot in the door, they pay their employers back in spades.
“People who are blind or low-vision, like other people with disabilities, are often very good problem-solvers because they often encounter barriers in their lives,” says Knight. “They often have very good negotiation skills too, because they’ve had to negotiate around particular [challenging] life circumstances.”
Knight suggests that to benefit from the abilities of people who are blind and of low vision, start with the first point of contact – the job interview.
“When you get to the interview stage, ask a [candidate] what they require. If there are on-the-job assessments, how will you make them accessible?
“Talk about the location of the interview with the applicant and ask about any challenges in getting there. Don’t [avoid] asking how you can help out of fear you will insult someone. It’s better to politely ask than to make assumptions.”
Next, review the accessibility of your workplace, says Knight, including your workplace’s hardware. Organisations such as Job Access can help in providing government-funded accessible equipment at no cost to the employer.
“A lot of the built environment – such as office lifts – are already set up for people with disability, but things like phone systems and photocopying machines are not necessarily accessible. They can be made so in most cases, but a lot of workplaces don’t think about all the things an employee might need to feel as independent and competent as they can be.”
What unique skills can people who are Deaf or hard of hearing bring to the workplace? It depends on who they are, says Terrianne Redman, HR and administration manager at Deaf Services and the Deaf Society.
She stresses that there is no specific ‘Deaf skill’ that prospective employers should look out for. However, their individual talents are often overlooked due to bias.
“There’s an assumption that people who are Deaf or hard of hearing won’t be able to communicate with hearing people without an interpreter, and that’s a myth,” she says. “They live in the general community where they have to communicate with hearing people every day; they’re very adept at it.”
Redman says it’s important to recognise the individuality of Deaf community members, but there are some areas where they may be particularly skilled.
“They are often very astute in reading people’s emotions through subtle changes in body language and facial expressions, even when these cues might be hidden from most others in the room.”
It’s not that Deaf or hard of hearing employees are struggling to fit in, says Redman. It’s that employers don’t understand how to create an inclusive environment that allows them to flourish.
“As an example, many people don’t know that for a lot of Deaf and hard-of-hearing Australians, English is not their first language,” says Redman. “It’s Auslan, which is a very different language to Signed English. If you’re interviewing a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing, first find out their communication preference.”
Along with providing communication assistance, such as interpreting and online translation or captioning, office design can also promote equal access.
“More than a third of our staff are Deaf or hard of hearing, and we’ve done things such as arrange the environment so they face directly towards hearing people because that can assist them to pick up on nonverbal communication.
“We also have plants to create barriers between spaces rather than walls that would block out the person’s vision of someone approaching them. The barriers between our cubicles are also low enough for staff to sign over the top of them.”
Privacy is another important consideration.
“Our glass meeting rooms and offices, for example, feature translucent frosting to ensure confidentiality of discussions in sign language, because it’s easy to eavesdrop on people having a conversation in Auslan.”
Redman recommends introducing Deaf awareness and Auslan training in your organisation to promote a more inclusive working environment.
“Most of our hearing staff have undertaken some form of Auslan training and many report that having that additional skill, as well as daily interactions with Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees, has enriched their lives.
“This is because learning about and being involved in another culture is rewarding.”
Learn more about the importance of inclusion at work at AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion Conference on 21 May in Sydney.
If you’ve ever experienced frustration when someone tries to finish a sentence for you, put yourself in the shoes of a person with a communication disorder such as a stutter, slow speech or a swallowing difficulty.
For them, it can happen every day.
Tim Kittel is an Adelaide-based speech pathologist and national president of Speech Pathology Australia. He works with people with communication disorders such as difficulties with speaking, listening and understanding language. He says disorders can be broadly divided into two classifications: those that are attached to an established diagnosis, such as Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, Autism or a stroke; and those that exist without clear reason.
“We put a lot of emphasis on how people speak – often more than we place on what they are actually saying,” says Kittel. “If somebody is struggling to speak, quite often the bias is that they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re judged as untrustworthy, lying, not very bright or maybe inebriated.”
However, employers who do make such assumptions are missing out on some really valuable skills.
“People who are blind of low-vision, like other people with disabilities, are often very good problem-solvers because they often encounter barriers in their lives.” – Karen Knight, general manager, client services, Vision Australia
“For example, they may be able to make the most complex written message a bit easier to understand, which is good for outward-facing business communications,” says Kittel.
“Just think of the average media release, for instance. They tend to have very dense information in them. Somebody with the communication impairment would probably tell you that it makes little sense because it’s written in a passive tense, or because a sentence has too many conjunctions in it.”
It’s not just about making your communications more accessible for those with a speech disorder, says Kittel, but for the wider community too because “what doesn’t flow for a person with a communication impairment is probably not going to flow for plenty of other people”.
Communicate differently to increase accessibility
How can you best support an employee with a communication disorder?
Kittel says start by asking them how they prefer to communicate.
“This should start at the interview stage. Ask them, ‘What’s the best way for us to have this interview for you?’ Sometimes it’s better if you can provide the information visually.”
Kittel recommends prioritising plain English in all workplace communications, and using clear visual signage in the office with symbols.
But the most valuable way to support employees with communication disorders is to listen to them.
“For people with communication impairments, the process of communicating can be incredibly hard, so when they have something to say, it actually matters a lot, so make sure you listen.”
This sentiment should be extended to all employees living with disability. The overwhelming advice that diverse employees share when asked how their employers can best support them is: “Just ask us what we need and we’ll tell you.”
It really can be as simple as that.
A version of this article first appeared in the April 2021 edition of HRM magazine.