Working with people who are Deaf or hard of hearing

Almost 20 per cent of people in Australia have hearing loss in some form, whether they are Deaf or hard of hearing. Many people who are Deaf and hard of hearing use sign language (Auslan) as their main form of communication, or use a combination of lip reading, spoken language or writing.

The main impact of hearing loss is on a person's ability to communicate with others.

You can support Deaf and hard of hearing volunteers by creating an environment in which all people are able to communicate as easily as possible.

Communicating with Deaf and hard of hearing volunteers

Every person has their own preferred way to communicate, particularly those who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Some people may use Australian Sign Language (Auslan) as their main form of communication, but others will write messages back and forth, use speech, gesture or other technologies to support their communication needs.

The first step to take if you are working with someone with who is Deaf or hard of hearing (this can be applied to either a volunteer or a client) is to ask them how they prefer to communicate. They may be more comfortable using sign language, lip reading, writing or talking face to face. Whichever method you use, make sure the person remains comfortable using it.

Following these basic steps can make the communication process easier:

  • Make sure you have attracted the person's attention before you start speaking. There are many ways to do this – a gentle touch on the arm is usually fine but ask the person who is Deaf or hard of hearing for their preference.
  • Always face the person and look directly at them while speaking. If there is lighting, make sure the light is shining on your face, and not from behind you.
  • Speak clearly and at a moderate pace. If you exaggerate your words it can make it harder for the person to read your lips.
  • Not everyone who is Deaf or hard of hearing can read lips, and even for those who can, it might be hard to catch every word. If you're having trouble being understood, try to rephrase the message instead of repeating it exactly.
  • Writing a note may be easier, especially if you are in a noisy environment. Talk to the person who is Deaf or hard of hearing to see if they are comfortable reading and writing notes.

It's important to be flexible and patient. It will become easier once you have an established style of communication between each other.

See the Tools and resources section below for access to a number of fact sheets which provide more advice.

Meetings

If you are meeting with someone who is Deaf or hard of hearing, you can take a few measures that will make it much easier for that person to be actively involved in the session.

As a general practice, but especially helpful in this instance, you should send out the meeting agenda and all relevant documents before the meeting. This will help parties have an understanding of what will be discussed and give them a chance to arrange an Auslan interpreter or other assistance they may need.

Include information about how to get to the meeting room, and make sure there is clear signage leading to the location. Pick a room or table where all listeners have a direct line of vision to all speakers. For a small meeting, use a round table so that it’s easier to see everyone. For larger group meetings, you could set chairs out in rows, with the speakers at the front.

Take the time to go around the room and do introductions. Ask the Chair to introduce each speaker throughout the meeting, by saying their name and gesturing to them. The Chair should also request that only one person speaks at a time.

Depending on your audience you may need to consider using a microphone or audio loop, or finding an Auslan interpreter for the session.

If you are running a large meeting or seminar, you could also turn lights on and off to alert people who are Deaf or hard of hearing that the session is about to start.

Making changes in your workplace

If you have a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing starting in your organisation there are a few changes you can make to make it easier for them to get settled.

You can start by:

  • Cutting down background noise where possible. Almost all people who are hard of hearing will find it difficult if there is a lot of noise in the background. Have a think about where they should sit in the workplace to have the least disruption.
  • Maximising visual cues in the workplace environment. Think about improving signage or directions to make your workplace easier to navigate.
  • Providing handouts and notes to convey messages and if you use videos as part of your induction or work then make sure they are captioned.

You can also help by checking if your volunteer needs specific assistive listening devices or aids to help them do their work.

Assistive listening devices

There are a number of devices that can be introduced to your workplace to make it easier for a volunteer who is Deaf or hard of hearing to carry out their duties.

Telephones

Some people will need a use a telephone with a volume and/or tone control or a special visual text telephone. A telephone typewriter (TTY) is a telecommunication device that enables people who are Deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired to use the telephone system.

The National Relay Service is a national service which relays phone calls between Deaf people or those with a hearing or speech impairment and the wider community:

National TTY Relay Service

Phone: 133 677 or 1300 555 727

Audio assistance

If you are running an event you may consider setting up an audio loop. This is a way of adapting PA systems that sends a signal to hearing aids. A special switch is required on the hearing aid to use such a system. The person using the hearing aid will only hear what goes through the microphone, not all the background noise.

On a larger scale, another option is an induction loop. This is basically a loop of cable around a designated area which generates a magnetic field picked up by hearing aids. Induction loops are starting to be used in buildings or at reception desks to help people in that location.

Emergency alerts and procedures

Be aware that in the event of an emergency, a volunteer who is Deaf or hard of hearing may not realise that the emergency alerts are in use. Boosting your alert tone with a visual cue, such as flashing or strobe lights, can be beneficial. There are also vibrating or auditory paging systems that can be implemented for emergencies.

Installing alternate emergency alerts may not be possible in smaller organisations so make sure a co-worker is assigned to assist the person who is Deaf or hard of hearing in an emergency situation.

Training

If you do have a new volunteer starting at your workplace and they communicate primarily using Auslan, you could consider Deafness Awareness Training or Auslan Training for your staff.

General awareness training

VicDeaf runs Deaf Awareness Training to provide the wider community, organisations, businesses, schools and services with appropriate and relevant information about Deaf people. This course aims to provide knowledge and strategies for improving the interaction between Deaf and hearing people.

Scope Victoria specialises in providing training around communication, and can tailor courses to meet the needs of your organisation.

Auslan courses

VicDeaf also run community, workplace and one-on-one Auslan (sign language) classes in Victoria.

Tools and resources