Working with Hearing Impaired Employees – Giving Them a Fair Go
Hearing impaired people often encounter difficulty at work
because their disability is not visible. I'd like to relate
to you, briefly, the sorry saga of a young man who has
recently been dragged through a performance management
process, essentially brought about by misunderstanding,
frustration on his behalf, and failure by an employer to
make a 'reasonable adjustment' [Australian law includes the concept of reasonable adjustment which in effect means that employers are required to make reasonable adjustments necessary to enable employment opportunities for disabled people] in relation to this person's employment.
The man involved has been hearing impaired from birth
having a severe / profound loss of a bilateral nature caused by rubella (German measles) during his gestation. That is,
he hears high pitch sounds with one ear and low pitch with
the other. With hearing aids in a sound proof room, he has
around 20 percent hearing. But hearing aids pick up all noise,
not just speech.
When in a one-to-one conversation with no background interference, he can conduct a normal conversation. To do that, he has to listen intently (unlike people with normal hearing) and read the lips of people with whom he is conversing. His main
challenge in life is that people who talk with him one-to-one
think that with hearing aids he can hear like anyone else. That
is far wide of reality.
In one work unit, staff with whom this man worked were told that he was hearing impaired … nothing else. When people
talked to him at a distance while he had his back towards them,
he did not respond. Frequently, people became annoyed with him
because they thought they were being ignored. They would then
shout. He'd hear the shouting and turn around to see a fellow
worker with an angry look – it's hard to shout without looking
angry – try it. He'd then get angry because he would be confused
about why the person shouting at him was angry.
Sometimes people would talk to him as they walked along a long
corridor, or when there was background equipment working, or
noise from other voices etc. Eventually, he was moved to another
work group. This one had several foreign staff who spoke English
as a second language. It was also a work area where there was
background noise from air-conditioning and industrial machinery.
No effort was made to advise the staff how much this fellow could hear, or how to deal with him. Within weeks, there was more conflict and the hearing impaired man was suspended on pay and eventually transferred yet again.
Unfortunately, the employing body was a government hospital, full of professionals who are expected to be 'caring' types, but who could not seem to extend their caring to a fellow employee.
The moral of the story is that if you would ask a one-armed person what they needed to be able to work safely, effectively and efficiently, why not do the same for a hearing impaired person? The simple answer is that people who are not hearing impaired have no idea what it is like and because it's an invisible ailment, we do not take it so seriously.
The principle of reasonable adjustment requires that we make
reasonable adjustment for people with a disability. All the
employer reasonably needed to do was to conduct a meeting with
people from the young man's work group and explain his level
of hearing impairment, what it meant and how to cope with it.
For example, if he had his back to you and you wanted to talk
with him, touch him on the shoulder to get his attention; if the
area was noisy, indicate with him to move somewhere quiet, and
then talk face-to-face. They could have asked the man to explain to people what he can hear, can not hear and how best he could have been integrated into the workplace. It could have been that easy.
If you are dealing with hearing impaired people, be considerate
enough to ask them how you can make the environment better
for them to hear. They'll tell you what they need and what
It makes it difficult for them.
This sorry saga led to the hearing impaired worker being 'let go' with a cash settlement. The lesson for all employers of disabled people in an age of anti-discrimination legislation, is that you can not afford not to manage these issues competently. If in doubt, get advice from your Human Resources people or other professionals such as audiologists, psychologists, occupational therapists and so on. It may save you a lot of trouble and cash in the long run.
Copyright Robin Henry 2005