Deaf members in the workplace

Breaking the barriers


As the AODA (The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005) celebrates its tenth anniversary, there is evidence that most people in the province have an increased awareness of the issues of barriers to access encountered by people with disabilities in many aspects of their daily lives. There is, however, still a significant gap in awareness as many people still focus on the physical/mobility considerations of the disability experience. Accessibility is much more than ramps and elevators.

For people who are Deaf, specifically those who are culturally Deaf and use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate, the primary barrier to access is spoken English. OSSTF/FEESO has taken significant steps to remove these barriers to our Deaf colleagues and this article is intended to help each of us do our part to increase our understanding of accessibility in broader terms, and to offer tips and suggestions on how you can do your part to ensure all our brothers and sisters, including those who are Deaf, can have better access to information in all aspects of our work and interactions together.

Members who are Deaf communicate with each other using ASL, whether they are at work, at school or at meeting. In 1980 Dennis Cokely and Charlotte Baker, both academics and advocates of Deaf Culture, realized “that not all deaf people use American Sign Language to communicate. However, those deaf people who do use ASL share a language bond that unites them as part of the Deaf community.”

When Deaf people are with other members of the Deaf community, the concept of disability disappears, as everyone communicates with ease and comfort. When a Deaf person is at work with hearing colleagues, or at a meeting, or is out in public where people communicate by speaking to one another, that is where barriers emerge. Information becomes difficult to share between hearing and Deaf people, mostly because hearing people who do not know ASL freeze or panic or simply give up trying to communicate because it is perceived to be too difficult or strange. Sometimes this happens without people even realizing that they are excluding Deaf people from engaging and participating.

So what can you do?

For the most basic, one-on-one interaction, these easy actions will work reasonably well.

Look directly at the Deaf person; speak in a normal manner (without exaggerated mouth movements). Many Deaf people can lip read a little bit, so that may be enough to get the message across. But be aware that lip reading is very difficult, and anything more than a short, simple message may not be clear. Sometimes basic gestures work to fill in the gaps; some pantomimes may help. But if you’re still not able to make yourself clear to your colleague, what’s next?

Use a pen and write your message on a piece of paper (a table napkin, your hand, whatever you have available).

Written communication goes much further than only speaking and gesturing. Yes, it takes time and hearing people are used to being able to communicate quickly when speaking to each other, especially while doing other things at the same time. You show your Deaf colleague an enormous amount of respect when you take the time and effort to ensure your message is clear and understood. You’ll likely garner a great deal of respect and appreciation in return.

Time-saving tip: We all carry some sort of mobile device now, so use it to communicate with your Deaf colleague. You don’t have to send them the text, but keying out your message on your phone or tablet will make what you want to say quickly visible and that’s the most important point.

When opportunities to communicate take on greater significance, these simple methods will be insufficient. For situations such as meetings or interviews, you will need other strategies and resources. In situations like staff meetings or performance appraisals, hiring the services of ASL interpreters will allow staff and management to all engage with one another and share important information equally and this is to the benefit of everyone. ASL interpreters hear the spoken messages of the people communicating using spoken English and interpret those messages into ASL. When Deaf members participate in conversations, ask questions or make presentation to the larger group, their ASL comments are interpreted into English so everyone can understand their contributions also. This is the most equitable form of making larger group interactions accessible. Writing notes or using texting devices cannot possibly capture all of the information clearly. If the information is important enough to require having a meeting, then it is important enough to require accommodation services of interpreters to be arranged.

In some situations such as large scale presentations it may also be advantageous to hire CART (Communication Access Real Time) captioning services. A CART writer uses a stenograph machine and a computer with translation software. They key in the spoken messages which then are projected on a screen in written English for everyone to see. This service can be a great benefit to everyone in the room and is often especially appreciated by people who may be losing their hearing as a result of the aging process. Often people are unaware that they have a minor hearing loss even while they struggle to capture all the information being presented. Frankly, when CART services are provided, everyone in the room usually finds it a great asset to be able to look at the screen to see what they missed because someone was talking, or made a noise that blocked out the speaker.

Often CART services and ASL interpreting services are used together at meetings to ensure everyone is able to receive the information in a way that is most useful to them. CART services may be inadequate for culturally Deaf people because their signed messages cannot be understood by the rest of the group, and ASL interpreting would be inappropriate for people who are losing their hearing because, like most of the rest of us, they don’t know American Sign Language.
Both ASL interpreting and CART services have financial costs associated with them. This means that schools, school boards, and the union have an obligation to plan for those costs and include them into their budgeting process. When arranging and implementing such services, it is important to remember that their purpose is not to help Deaf workers to participate, but to facilitate communication between both hearing and Deaf workers.


About Giulio Schincariol
Giulio Schincariol is a teacher in District 30, Provincial School Authority Teachers (PSAT).

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