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Heeding hearing impairment in the work environment

Heeding hearing impairment in the work environment

A simmering coffee machine, chatting colleagues, the radio in the background and the sound of a starting PC, all sounds that match the start of my workday. Sounds I do not really hear if I am not consciously listening to them, but which are always there and give me a familiar feeling.

Since I started working at Comfoor, I am suddenly more aware of these sounds around me. I am becoming increasingly aware that hearing and producing sound is not something to be taken for granted. In my immediate working environment, I got to know colleagues who have a hearing impairment or are completely deaf. They spend their every day at work (almost) in silence. I admire their drive and positive attitude and I wonder 'What is it like to work with a hearing impairment?'

Hearing and producing sound are not self-evident

Jitske and Ellis

Jitske and Ellis are two employees of Comfoor who have a hearing impairment. Jitske is completely deaf, Ellis hears almost nothing. Because I do not know sign language, communication in the corridors is mostly restricted to quick gestures like a ‘thumbs up’, a nod or a smile. I think Jitske and Ellis are one with their work and their colleagues, but I I don’t know for certain. I decide to ask them. I speak with Jitske through the help of an interpreter, whom she has arranged herself. What a great solution! She has so much to tell and can express herself perfectly in this way. We end up having a really nice conversation. Of course, it takes some getting used to; Jitske moves while the sound is coming from the other side of the table, but it takes only a matter of minutes to get used to that. Via e-mail I also get a comprehensive response from both of them to a number of questions that I presented them with.

Photo: Ellis & Jitske

Figures hearing impairment

Every year about 15,000 babies are born deaf. In the Netherlands, 1.3 million inhabitants are currently registered as hearing impaired or deaf. The actual group is much larger, somewhere between 1.6 and 1.8 million, varying from completely deaf people to those with limited hearing loss. One of the reasons this number is not exactly determined, is that a hearing-impaired person tends to wait 7 years before purchasing a hearing aid!

What the labor market looks like for the deaf and hard of hearing group is also not easily determined, as it is not allowed in the Netherlands to register personal impairments. In 2007 it was already estimated that 50% of registered hearing-impaired people are unemployed. In addition, it is estimated that 65% of hearing-impaired people are younger than 65 years. It therefore seems that, working with a hearing impairment is certainly not self-evident.

Prejudices & benefits

I understand from both Jitske and Ellis that they have had to deal with many prejudices from the labor market. As a hearing-impaired person you are often seen as retarded or handicapped and most employers have no knowledge or experience with deaf or hearing-impaired employees. This lack of knowledge and understanding makes companies wary. So, when Jitske applied for a job, she only indicated that she was deaf if she felt that this matched the image of the organization. At Comfoor, employees with a hearing impairment are more than welcome, so she felt she could be immediately open at the time. But with other job applications she often only mentioned her impairment after she was invited for a job interview. The risk of a rejection in advance was otherwise too great. Ellis, too, had to struggle for 2 years with unsuccessful applications, before Comfoor came on her path.

The work Jitske and Ellis do at Comfoor does not correspond with their education and vocational training. Jitske, for example, graduated in interior design and Ellis was trained at flower design. However, their work at Comfoor does give them the opportunity to use their creativity, making this a good alternative for both.

I truly hope that the current shortage on the labor market will offer more opportunities for people with a hearing impairment. It would be great if employers start thinking about the opportunities and see what the benefits are. They then can experience for themselves what a valuable addition these people can be to the organization. The advantages are plenty!

Deaf and hearing-impaired people can do everything hearing people can, except hear...

The most important advantages:

  • Hearing impaired people often face setbacks and have to fight for their place in society. This means motivated employees who are 200% committedto their job.
  • Hearing impaired people are confronted with difficult situations every day. Situations in which they have to be flexible and creative. Just imagine going to the bakers as a hearing-impaired person without vocal power and you want to order your favorite bread, but do not see it! The hearing impaired learn to think outside the box. They have to put more effort into everything, but ultimately they achieve their goals through perseverance.
  • Because hearing-impaired people are miss one sense, other senses are automatically better developed. A hearing-impaired person is more visually oriented and sees what happens (or what goes wrong) more quickly than other employees. Furthermore, they are often emotional intelligentpeople and therefore nice colleagues.
  • Hearing-impaired persons can concentrate better, are not distracted by sounds around them and thus fully absorbed in the work. Definitely a positive attribute if you want to work in a goal-orientedway. 
  • Communication & tips 

Of course, it is true that an employer has to make some adjustments for an employee with a hearing impairment and the same applies to colleagues. Communication will always remain the biggest challenge, but is that not true for all of us? Employees with a hearing impairment will sometimes miss information. This can be work-related information, but also small talk at the coffee machine. The feeling of ‘not belong' is lurking and has an effect on the employee's well-being and work performance. Therefore, it needs some extra initiative on both sides to ensure that the employee is and remains involved in the work, the organization and with colleagues. 

Communication is the biggest challenge, but is that not true for all of us?

Jitske and Ellis gave me some practical tips on matters in which even Comfoor, as an experienced employer of deaf and hearing-impaired employees, can still make some improvements: 

Tip 1: Lip reading is one of the main ways to obtain information. It is therefore important that colleagues in the organization know and understand that they have to look at the relevant employee while talking. 

Tip 2: Do not forget your hearing-impaired colleagues and try to involve them as much as possible in conversations, using your hands and feet if necessary. The effort that is being made already gives a lot of satisfaction and strengthens the involvement. It will also strengthen the over-all social aspect in the organization as it challenges the hearing staff to improve their social skills.

Tip 3: It is very much appreciated and more effective if employees receive information not only verbally, but also in writing. Visualizing information (using a whiteboard, summary or a presentation) will also help to comprehend and memorize it better. This also applies to hearing employees; everyone hears selectively, nobody can immediately remember and store all given information. 

Tip 4: An interpreter offers a lot of results when communicating with hearing-impaired people. In the Netherlands employees can easily arrange this themselves via the Institute for Employee Insurance. We have perfectly organized these types of facilities in our country, so why not make more and better use of them?  Tip 5: For the hearing impaired, it is nice to have several other colleagues in the organization with a hearing impairment. They understand each other completely, communicate effortlessly and can occasionally share their frustrations with each other. It is nice to be able to blow off steam in your 'own language', the same goes for the hearing staff. Don’t we all need to complain about our partners sometimes or vent our frustrations about the traffic jams that morning? 

Conclusion

Deaf and hearing-impaired people can be valuable employees and colleagues in every company. It is time for employers to stop thinking in difficulties but look at the possibilities. And there are many! With just few (small) adjustments, you as an employer can have seriously motivated employees!