Deaf awareness at work: what to watch for

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As more than 100 deaf charities throughout the UK prepare for national Deaf Awareness Week, 1 sufferer is drawing upon her own experience of disability to raise awareness of deafness at work.

Hearing Loss

Co-ordinated by the UK Council on Deafness and running from 7 to 13 May, the week's aim is to demonstrate how deaf, deafened, deaf-blind and hard-of-hearing people use various communication methods.

By raising awareness of such measures as sign language and lip-reading, the council hopes to improve the nationwide understanding of different types of deafness.

With 1 in 6 people in the UK suffering some loss of hearing, organisations are being encouraged to better understand deafness, particularly where the condition affects customer-facing staff.

Among supporters of Deaf Awareness Week, which is now in its 9th year, is Julie Ryder, a 41-year-old mother of 2 from Lancashire. Julie's story will be familiar to anyone affected by deafness at work, either as a sufferer themselves or as one who might work with deaf or hearing-impaired customers or colleagues.

Julie discovered she was going deaf after a mild loss of hearing in 1991 when she answered the telephone at work.

"I couldn't hear the other person on the line," Julie said. "I swapped the handset over to my other ear and still couldn't hear so I made an appointment to get my ears tested. It was during those tests when my whole life changed."

By 2000 Julie had become profoundly deaf in both ears. Although she had hearing aids, she found lip-reading difficult and tiring, her frustration compounded by the fact that relatively few people know sign language.

Julie found it especially difficult to communicate with her 2 children, Alfie and Annie.

In 2002, Julie had a cochlear implant fitted to her left side. For the first time she could hear her children without having to lip-read – "an amazing feeling."

Julie is now encouraging individuals and businesses across the UK to become involved with Deaf Awareness Week, particularly organisations which provide frontline customer service.

"Throughout my 'deaf' journey I've met many people who simply don't know how to communicate with deaf people effectively," Julie said. "Communication is 2-way, so even though I can lip-read and use British Sign Language [BSL], there's still a lot that hearing people can do to help me, and the millions of other deaf people in the UK, access conversation and information."

Just over a decade ago, Julie drew on her experience to help others by setting up her own training company, HearFirst, with a mission to educate service providers to meet the needs of deaf and disabled people.

Julie explained: "I wanted to deliver workforce training that was not only innovative, lively and participatory but would have an impact and motivate them to change their attitude, environment or work processes to meet the needs of their customers."

Among the many different types of organisations HearFirst works with are housing associations, schools, colleges and universities, museums, libraries and galleries, the NHS, community groups and commercial organisations.

To improve Britain's overall customer service to deaf people, Julie has devised a list of helpful tips:

  • Offer a range of contact options for your organisation – as well as phone numbers, give customers postal and email addresses, a fax number and a website if you have one
  • Ensure you have good, clear and unambiguous signage at your site or office so people can see where to go rather than having to ask
  • Remove background noise when you're meeting people or you're on the phone
  • In meetings give deaf people a choice of where to sit in order to best see your face
  • Remember, a sunny day can easily put your face in shadow. Make sure the light is on you, especially if you're addressing an audience
  • Don't be afraid to use gestures help convey what you're saying verbally
  • Always speak as clearly as you can (but never shout)
  • Make sure you know how to get a BSL interpreter if you need one
  • Assume that older people will have some degree of hearing loss
  • Use pen and paper to get specific information across (eg: times and dates).

The Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley, London has recently benefited from disability and equality awareness training. Its heritage officer, Eleanor Sier, has noted a general change in attitude to improving access since the training. "We are holding more and marketing better screenings with hard-of-hearing subtitles."

Julie said: "We work with many organisations across a variety of sectors but they all have one common goal – to educate and train their staff on disability awareness, promoting the benefits and improving services to their customers."

"Deaf Awareness Week is a great opportunity for organisations to organise local events and work with their staff, tenants and customers to raise awareness of deafness."

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