THE BLOG
05/21/2014 03:34 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

Creating Deaf Accessibility in the Workplace

When interviewing for a job, you only get one chance at a good first impression. You try to wear the right clothes, mentally prepare, and hope you have all the right answers. But what if none of that mattered? What if you didn't get the job because of the color of your eyes? Or because you were too tall? In 2014, this kind of hiring discrimination might sound absurd, but for deaf job candidates it is a difficult reality.

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act gives deaf individuals legal protection against discriminatory hiring practices. According to this section of the ADA, an employer may not use ones' deafness as a basis for not hiring, not advancing, or terminating employment status. Qualified deaf applicants must be considered for career opportunities, so long as they meet the skill, experience, education, and other job-related requirements of a position -- with or without reasonable accommodation.

Most hearing people rarely think about deaf accommodations. When it comes to hiring deaf employees, they are concerned that it will be a costly or inconvenient process. Potential employers might worry that communication will be challenging, and the deaf employee will have trouble integrating with the team. These fears are unfounded, and they usually stem from inadequate corporate cultural sensitivity education.

The bottom line is that hearing employers simply don't understand what it means to be deaf, and so it seems easier to just hire a hearing person... even if they are less qualified for the job. This is discrimination, and it's sadly commonplace.

The first step to hiring a deaf employee is opening a comfortable line of communication. Not sure how? Just ask! Deaf people spend their whole lives learning to interact with mainstream culture, and each person does it a little differently. Some deaf people prefer written communication, others are ok with reading lips, and still others prefer an ASL interpreter -- there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Trust me, you will not offend your deaf interviewee by asking him or her what type of communication they like to use! 

When you decide to hire a deaf candidate, some workplace adjustments will need to be made. Your training videos should already be captioned; if they are not, you can have them captioned for a very reasonable fee. According to the ADA, it is the deaf individual's responsibility to inform an employer where accommodations are needed. Employers are obligated by law to make any "reasonable accommodations" which enable their employee to work effectively. Most of these adjustments will depend on the person's individual preferences. Not sure? Just ask! 

Businesses must provide deaf employees with the auxiliary devices they need to communicate equally. With unlimited access to email, text, and chats, it is easier than ever to make your workflow deaf-friendly. Generally, the most important device will be a video phone. Businesses can obtain video phones and Video Relay Services for free, VRS providers are reimbursed by the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Service Fund.

Using the VRS, your deaf employee is connected with a communications assistant through video chat. The video interpreter will engage with the deaf person using their preferred modality, and vocally interpret for the hearing parties. When last minute interpreters are needed for a quick conversation, a video relay interpreter is an appropriate option. This means that when a hearing client, manager, or coworker needs to discuss something with a deaf employee, they can just use the VRS to quickly and conveniently do so; whether they are across the country or just across the hall.

For meetings, you will need to enlist a deaf service provider -- either a captionist or interpreter. Meetings can be very involved and fast-paced. Even the most expert lip readers have difficulty keeping up when there are 20 people in the room discussing things out of turn. You want everyone in your organization to feel like their participation is valued, so be sure you ask your deaf employee how you can better facilitate this. When hiring an interpreter or service provider, be sure to submit your request as far in advance as you are able. 

As far as cost concerns, there are specific Federal tax credits and tax deductions available to employers, and you will find there are also other public and private sources of funding available for ADA required accommodations. This means service providers and equipment charges can often be reimbursed at little cost to your business. 

Equality starts from the top down. Diverse leadership promotes social tolerance, and we are finally beginning to see deaf officials in major institutions such the White House and the FCC. When business owners, executives, and managers become educated about multicultural issues, the entire organization benefits. When your staff understands how to integrate a deaf individual onto the team, you are helping bridge the cultural divide and making strides toward true equality. Let's stop making barriers and start creating opportunities!