Virtual work is creating challenges for people with diverse abilities. Here's how you can help.

My fascination with American Sign Language started with Sesame Street.

I remember as a kid being absolutely captivated by Linda Bove, a Deaf performer who appeared on the show for almost three decades; I was mesmerized by her facial expressions and how she was able to say so much without using any words. Bove introduced me, and millions of other North American kids, to sign language at a time when it was relatively unknown.

For nearly two decades now, I've had the honour of working with individuals who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing. In my current role as an American Sign Language interpreter with TD since 2018, I've also witnessed first-hand the accessibility and stigma-related challenges this community faces.  

Thanks to increased advocacy and advancements in accessibility technology – such as the arrival of Video Relay Service to Canada in 2016, which allowed Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to make phone calls – the workplace has become a better and more inclusive place for this community.

But unfortunately, impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including some of the public health measures put in place to help curtail the spread of the virus, are unintentionally competing with the progress that has been made and creating new barriers for this community.

Research by The Canadian Association of the Deaf in 2015 found that there are approximately 357,000 individuals with some level of hearing impairment in Canada.

COVID-19 creating new challenges for the Deaf community 

Some of the challenges presented by the public health requirements put in place to help control the spread of the pandemic are things many of us can adopt without major difficulties. Take mask wearing and physical distancing, for example. Although implementing these are necessary to help stem the spread of the virus, they make communication much more challenging for individuals who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing.

You may not be aware that sign language is a tactile and expressive language and that some signs require you to touch your face. A lot of communication happens through facial expressions, all of which are made much more difficult when wearing a mask and avoiding face-touching.

Masks are also a barrier for those among the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community who depend on reading lips. In this respect, masks that have clear plastic view-windows are better than those that don't. Another common part of Deaf culture is tapping someone on the shoulder to get a person's attention, which is not at all easy to do when physical distancing is in place.

New work from home challenges

Learning to adapt to working from home has also been frustrating for many people including those within the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. For many office workers, the pandemic has forced them to go from using, larger and multiple monitors to a single smaller laptop screen. One potential solution to help improve accessibility in this regard is what TD did in providing large monitors for all employees working from home.

For my colleagues, not having this larger monitor would mean trying to navigate a presentation or a training session on a small screen while having to follow the presenter, the ASL interpreter and  presentation itself, all at the same time. I also personally create concurrent video calls so Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees can see me translating in a full-screen window while also following along with their regular meeting, and when I am already booked for a meeting I make sure to bring in freelance interpreters when the service is needed for my colleagues.

I wasn't aware of this when I joined TD two years ago, but I'm proud that my workplace is the only bank in Canada with an Assistive Technologies Lab.   

In honour of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) this October, I reached out to two of my Deaf colleagues, Christine Senitza, Operations Officer at TD, and Nancy Goduto, Partner Service Representative, for tips on how to be a good ally to this community at work. Here is some advice from them on how to encourage greater inclusivity and accessibility for our Deaf and hard-of-hearing colleagues:

For colleagues working remotely

  • Be an ally by setting up regular touchpoints to check in with the Deaf or hard-of-hearing individual(s)  – are they okay? Are they informed about what is happening with the pandemic, (at work and in general)?
  • If you are a team manager, ask the individual what accessibility technology they need and coordinate with the staff interpreter to ensure that this is made available to them.

For colleagues working together in-person

  • Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees often prefer sitting with hearing people in meetings to see and openly-discuss with the hearing team. Always extend the invitation for them to join.
  • Use polite hand-waving to get their attention.
  • If you are wearing a mask with no mouth view-window, use a pen and paper to communicate.

At a professional level, we must step out of our comfort zones and reach out and learn about the specific and unique needs of our Deaf and hard-of-hearing colleagues. In my role as an ASL interpreter, being a good ally means not assuming someone prefers to communicate via ASL alone for example, by asking whether they might prefer me to mouth in English while also using ASL signs, or if they prefer to communicate via English-based sign language.

Being a good ally at work starts with understanding that able-bodied/hearing privilege exists, while also recognizing that the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community has its own rich history and culture. As a good ally, self-education is a very important step and there are many organizations that have resources, historical information, and statistics on this community available to inform yourself, such as those available through the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf.

And it's always good to just ask questions and learn from your Deaf and hard-of-hearing colleagues. It's especially important now that we listen to their needs in order to keep engaging this pool of talent and build more inclusive workplaces (even virtual ones).

We should also remember that listening doesn’t always happen with our ears, but with our hearts.

 

READ MORE: Four ways I think we can better support people with disabilities in the workplace

Jean-Luc Pharand

Sign Language Interpreter - Workplace Accommodation Program (HR Service Channel)

TD Bank Group