Six steps to better adapt your business to deaf or hearing-impaired customers

Dec 3, 2018 by Énergir in At work
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Deafness is an invisible disability that, in my opinion, is rarely talked about in the business world. Yet, in this country, hearing loss affects two out of five Canadians. So there are many advantages to making your premises more accessible to the deaf and hearing impaired, and it doesn’t cost much to do so. Taking these steps will expand your clientele and improve your employees’ quality of life. What’s more, you will stand out in the eyes of consumers by offering support and by demonstrating greater respect and compassion toward those living with a hearing problem.

Read the report (French only): Les difficultés des personnes malentendantes dans les lieux publics from the Association des personnes avec une déficience de l’audition (APDA)

The difference between deaf and hearing impaired

A deaf person is one who suffers from significant or complete deafness, communicates by QSL (Quebec Sign Language) and identifies with the Deaf culture. A signing deaf person is someone who mainly uses sign language but who can also lip read and use some speech (cued speech). A hearing-impaired person suffers mild to profound hearing loss in one or both ears, has trouble understanding and can be affected on a personal, relationship and social level. I myself have been hearing impaired since birth, with severe to profound hearing loss in both ears. A hearing-impaired person who communicates by speech and understands through lipreading or a hearing device is considered an oralist. QSL is an effective means for communicating with a deaf person who signs. But there are also other simple solutions your business can implement to support dialogue between your employees and deaf or hearing-impaired customers. These include:

Using adapted accessories

Did you know? Giving your customers a Wi-Fi access code allows deaf or hearing-impaired people to communicate using the Video Relay Service (VRS). They can communicate with another person with help from a third-party operator who acts as intermediary. The sign language user connects to the VRS operator via Internet-based videoconferencing. The operator then telephones the other party and relays the conversation from sign language to voice, and vice-versa. To ensure the safety of the deaf and hearing impaired, and enhance their customer experience, it is worthwhile equipping yourself with accessories adapted to their particular needs—especially if you are a hotel, motel or rental-cottage owner. These accessories include a vibrating alarm clock, a telephone with adjustable volume settings or an indicator light, a flashing doorbell system and a flashing, vibrating, audible fire alarm system. And if your company has a conference area, consider installing an induction loop amplifier. This system improves sound quality for hearing-impaired people who use hearing devices, by eliminating ambient noise. 

Designate calmer areas

Are you a restaurant owner? Keep in mind that in group situations, people with hearing impairments have to concentrate very hard to be able to follow the conversation. For their sake, don’t play the music too loud in your restaurant. Without necessarily creating specially adapted sections in your restaurant, you can rework your layout to provide quieter areas with less echoing. Good lighting is also important, since many deaf and hearing-impaired people lip read.

Review your online communication tools

Do you produce videos to promote your business? Consider subtitles. And amend your online forms to allow deaf and hearing-impaired people to choose their preferred means of communication. Email, for instance, is often used. Likewise, offer your customers the option of contacting you via your Facebook page and of accessing live online support on your website.

Train your staff

Give your staff the necessary awareness training so they are sensitive to the needs of this clientele. You could add a special mention in your orientation guide for new employees, or place a set of instructions next to the computer at reception, outlining how to communicate more effectively with the deaf or hearing impaired. By understanding the reality of deaf and hearing-impaired people in the public realm, your employees will be able to identify them more readily. A person with hearing loss isn’t usually forthcoming about it, especially if they know their contact with you will only be brief. They will only mention their problem if the situation becomes uncomfortable and, even then, they’re not likely to go into detail. In other words, deaf and hearing-impaired people cope on their own and adapt to the various obstacles and situations they encounter. By being made aware of hearing loss, your staff will be able to accommodate this clientele’s communication needs. It is best to use short sentences and plain language when communicating with the hearing impaired. In dealing with deaf people, your staff may not be familiar with sign language. But they can communicate with these customers in other ways—in writing or using natural, evocative gestures. For example, I was at a restaurant with a deaf person and the server was very attentive and took the time to communicate with my friend using the Notes app on his iPhone. His approach was very much appreciated.

Hiring someone with a hearing problem

Make your workplace inclusive and positive. Set an example by broadening your company’s hiring pool to include people with a hearing problem. They have several skills that could be very useful to you, and they are very well placed to help you bring about changes within your company. It’s true that you will need to invest some time and money to accommodate these individuals, but funding in this regard is available from various organizations and from the government. Certain ergonomic and technological adjustments will be required in your work areas, and job duties and work schedules may need to be modified. It’s worth looking into. Hiring people with hearing loss could also help alleviate the current labour shortage.

Display information on screen

Do you relay messages via intercom? Consider displaying them on screen instead so that deaf or hearing-impaired people get the information as well. And to show that your workplace is accessible, display a large-size version of the symbol of an ear with a line through it (with or without the T [for those wishing to use the induction loop system]) in one or more clearly visible locations. You should also do the same on your website. It is in fact recommended to list the adapted accessories that are available.