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Tips for navigating your workplace with hearing loss

Contributed by | Monday, April 11th, 2016

If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, working with those who hear normally can be quite a challenge. Authors Gordon Eddie and Adrian Hill know this first hand. Eddie, a busy technology consultant, has worn hearing aids since he was 5 years old; Hill, a successful trial attorney, lost half of his hearing to illness and antibiotics as a child. Their book, "Breaking the Sound Barrier, Succeeding at Work with Hearing Loss," contains pragmatic solutions for navigating the work environment based on their personal experiences.

skyline of a large city
You may need to negotiate a quiet
space to work, especially if your 
office has a modern open floor plan. 

The two met on a live-aboard dive-boat in the Great Barrier Reef in April 2011. When talk at lunch turned to workplace challenges they both face as employees with hearing loss, the two decided to share their personal tactics with others who experience the same hearing-related challenges.

Be your own advocate

Both authors believe employees with hearing loss need to work harder and smarter and have a good attitude in order to be achieve success in the workplace. And, while a proactive boss who advocates for his employees is a bonus, advocating for yourself is the best way to ensure your success.

The biggest mistake, Eddie says, is leaving it up to others to propose communication solutions. “This will happen slowly, if at all. No one understands what works better than you do. Take the lead and propose what will work best for everyone.”

That includes negotiating a quiet place to work. While employees just beginning their careers most likely won’t have the luxury of working in an office with walls and a door, work with your boss to find a space with the quietness you require for your level of hearing.

For example, Hill recounted a disabled researcher who needed a quiet space to work. “He always took one of our meeting rooms but he had to give it up if it were needed for a meeting and all the others were occupied. Next, if an office was empty because the “owner” was away, he had standing permission to use it. If he ended up with nowhere to work quietly, he would do his clerical work. In 99 percent of his time with us, he had the work space he needed.”

“Stress the benefits to everyone,” Eddie said. “If it’s easier to hold discussions at your desk, conversations will be quicker and everyone can get their jobs done faster. That’s good for the team, which is good for the company.”

Organize, prepare and follow up

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make provisions for employees with hearing loss, there’s no substitute for being organized and thoroughly prepared. For example, since phone calls can pose big challenges, organization, preparation and follow up are key to success. In their book, the authors recommend:

  • Preparing for any call you need to make
  • Finding a quiet environment to make the call — or moving to a quiet place when you receive one
  • Making the person you’re talking to aware of your hearing loss
  • Keeping calls as short as possible, avoid rambling conversations
  • Confirming key points at the end of the call
  • Looking for alternatives to the phone, such as video conferencing, email or instant messaging, if necessary

“Lead by example simply by practicing those tactics every day,” Eddie said. “Other people will see the benefits first hand and may choose to adopt them.”

And don’t fake it, Hill adds. He believes pretending to hear something relevant or necessary is the single biggest mistake those who are hard of hearing make when working with those who hear normally.

Maintain your energy

New jobs can be exhausting for those with normal hearing — even more so if you have hearing loss. Eddie recommends prioritizing how you spend your energy and taking the initiative to build effective communication channels with your colleagues.

“A routine makes life much easier,” Eddie said. “Identify the key people you need to work with and work with them individually to figure out the most efficient way to communicate in order to get your job done. Be very proactive and don’t leave it up to other people. No one understands your level of hearing better than you do.”

“Expect the early days to be the most difficult,” he added. “Expect to burn a lot of energy early on, as you meet key people and work with them to build effective communications. It goes without saying that all this effort is in addition to actually doing your job! Stick at it, and it will get easier in time.”

For those with normal hearing

Creating a positive workplace environment doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of employees with hearing loss, however. Those with normal hearing have some responsibility as well. If you work with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing:

  • Make sure they can see your face when you are speaking. They may use lip-reading skills to better understand the conversation.
  • Speak clearly, not loudly, and don’t jumble or slur your words.
  • If you’re the boss, consider working with your employee to draft a statement about his or her hearing loss to send to the rest of the team. Includes concrete guidance on how everyone can work together effectively.

“As a business owner and employer, there is absolutely nothing as valuable as good staff,” Hill said. “It is harder to find that you might imagine. I simply would not tolerate anyone who hindered the effectiveness and motivation of a good employee.”

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