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Working with Hearing Impaired Employees - Giving Them a Fair Go

Hearing impaired people often encounter difficulty at workbecause their disability isn't visible. I'd like to relateto you, briefly, the sorry saga of a young man who has recently been dragged through a performance managementprocess, essentially brought about by misunderstanding,frustration on his behalf, and failure by an employer tomake 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 birthhaving 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 withthe other. With hearing aids in a sound proof room, he hasaround 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 mainchallenge in life is that people who talk with him one-to-onethink that with hearing aids he can hear like anyone else. Thatis far wide of reality.

In one work unit, staff with whom this man worked were told that he was hearing impaired ? nothing else. When peopletalked to him at a distance while he had his back towards them,he did not respond. Frequently, people became annoyed with himbecause they thought they were being ignored. They would thenshout. He'd hear the shouting and turn around to see a fellowworker with an angry look ? it's hard to shout without lookingangry ? try it. He'd then get angry because he would be confusedabout why the person shouting at him was angry.

Sometimes people would talk to him as they walked along a longcorridor, or when there was background equipment working, or noise from other voices etc. Eventually, he was moved to anotherwork group. This one had several foreign staff who spoke Englishas a second language. It was also a work area where there wasbackground 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 couldn't 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 don't take it so seriously.

The principle of reasonable adjustment requires that we makereasonable adjustment for people with a disability. All theemployer reasonably needed to do was to conduct a meeting withpeople from the young man's work group and explain his levelof hearing impairment, what it meant and how to cope with it.For example, if he had his back to you and you wanted to talkwith him, touch him on the shoulder to get his attention; if thearea was noisy, indicate with him to move somewhere quiet, andthen talk face-to-face. They could have asked the man to explain to people what he can hear, can't 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 considerateenough to ask them how you can make the environment betterfor them to hear. They'll tell you what they need and whatmakes 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 cannot 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

Robin Henry is a human resources and development professional and Internet marketer who operates an online business from Central Australia. He writes on a range of topics, many of which can be found here or at his site at

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