Sounding HR out

What are we doing to challenge attitudes and change perceptions towards
working with deaf and hard of hearing people? Roisin Woolnough discovers how HR
plays a vital role in raising awareness and helping staff to understand issues
surrounding deaf people in the workplace

Before the Disability Discrimination Act came into force in 1995, deaf
people were twice as likely to be unemployed as non-deaf. Now, they are
two-and-a-half times more likely to be unemployed, according to research by the
Royal National Institute for the Deaf.

There are 8.7 million deaf or hard of hearing people in the UK – which
amounts to one in seven people – and 3.3 million of them are of working age.
The DDA requires any employer with 15 or more staff to make ‘reasonable
adjustments’ to enable disabled people to work.

RNID research shows that 74 per cent of employers have an Equal
Opportunities Policy and want to comply with the Act. However, Sharon Collins,
director of services and employment, learning and skills at the RNID, says most
do not have the correct procedures in place to ensure people with hearing
problems have a fair chance of succeeding.

"Deaf and hard of hearing people are very disadvantaged in the labour
market," she says. "Yet they have a whole range of skills and
abilities to offer and are an untapped pool of labour."

After conducting a survey into disability issues last year, the CIPD found
the main problem is other people’s perceptions of the disabled. Called The
Change Agenda – adapting to disability, it wasn’t so difficult after all, the
survey was carried out among more than 800 HR managers. Eight out of 10 of them
said adapting their workplaces and procedures to accommodate disabled people
was easy.

The biggest challenge was changing the attitudes of fellow workers, with a
third of respondents describing it as a difficult task.

"It’s about changing perceptions and stereotypes," says Dianah
Worman, disability adviser at the CIPD. "The more we can get people to
understand the issues facing deaf people, the easier it is to promote different
ways of doing things."

Towards the end of last year, the RNID held an employment seminar to educate
employers about good workplace practice for deaf and hard of hearing people.
"We talked to people about how to create an environment that allows deaf
people to perform properly," says Collins.

Employers need to ensure the appropriate policies, procedures and support are
in place to maximise the potential of any disabled employees and make them feel
comfortable at work. Yet, many employees with hearing problems complain they
are inadequately catered for.

After surveying 1,099 mostly profoundly deaf people, the RNID found that 64
per cent have experienced communication difficulties at work, 90 per cent say
they could do a better job if they had the correct communication equipment and
60 per cent were looking for another job because of their treatment at work.

HR has a vital role to play in addressing these problems, creating the right
environment and raising awareness. "There needs to be far more awareness
training to help people understand the issues and do things differently,"
says Worman.

The bank HSBC has a dedicated diversity and employee support department
within its HR function, with two disability managers. One of them, Sue Kennedy,
says the company has proactively promoted workplace diversity for more than 10
years. "We run a one-day awareness course on disability, which covers
legislation, best practice and our company policy. We also run a one-day equal
opportunities course, which features disability. Typically, attendees are line
managers. We also run seminars and take disabled work experience people."

The RNID advises companies such as HSBC on best practice. It can assess an
organisation’s disability policies, run awareness courses, issue staff with a
‘Don’t Panic’ pack to help them when they are dealing with a person with
hearing problems for the first time, and instruct them as to any special
equipment required.

Some employers fear that taking on a person with a disability will cost them
a great deal of money and disrupt the workplace, but equipment is rarely
expensive and can often be obtained, free of charge, through the Government’s
Access to Work scheme. The main focus has to be on changing people’s attitudes
towards people with hearing difficulties.

Case study: Vanessa Whitehouse
Increasing prospects

Being deaf should not deter you from finding, and keeping,
employment

When Vanessa Whitehouse applies for
jobs, she is reluctant to admit she is deaf in case it counts against her.
"I have always worried about writing ‘I am deaf’ on application
forms," she says. While being considered for her current job – project manager
for the offshore funds in Dublin and Europe at investment management company,
Barclays Global Investors – it was only at her third interview that she let on
about her disability.

Since she started working at BGI, she says the company has been
highly supportive and proactive in creating the right working environment. Her
line manager and HR have ensured she has the necessary tools to do her job.
Colleagues and business contacts all know she is deaf and have been educated
about how best to communicate and conduct meetings with deaf people.

During meetings colleagues know to look at Whitehouse when they
are speaking so that she can lip read. Interruptions can mean she loses the
thread of conversation, so people need to refrain from butting in, or get her
attention when they do it, so she knows who is speaking. BGI is now in
consultation with the RNID to improve employment conditions and prospects for
any other deaf and hard of hearing people who might join the company.

"There is a misconception that hiring a deaf person will
be expensive and mean lots of dramatic changes, but it’s actually very
easy," says Whitehouse. "Small changes need to be made and the main
thing is to raise awareness within the firm."

Since taking on Whitehouse, BGI is actively recruiting more deaf
people and offering a work experience placement to a student from the Mary Hare
School for the Deaf, with the possibility of a job at the end of it. As part of
the programme the company is running deaf and disability awareness courses for
all employees, run by the RNID. Those involved in the interview process will be
given interviewing training and other people who will be directly participating
in the programme will attend a one-day awareness course.

Useful contacts:

– Access to Work – www.employmentservice.gov.uk

– CIPD – www.cipd.co.uk/  020 8971 9000

– RNID – www.rnid.org.uk/
 0808 808 0123

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