Engaging staff with hearing impairments in the workplace

Lady at work using sign language to communicate with colleague

When it comes to creating an accommodating, inclusive workplace for staff with hearing impairments, small adjustments make a big difference. Brunel Australasia’s Human Resources Manager Nicola Veal shares her experience working with Lotus Ho – a team member with a hearing impairment – and the lessons she has learned along the way.

Nicola Veal HR Manager
Human Resources Manager, Brunel Australasia
Nicola Veal

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to recruit for an office administrator to work with us at Brunel Australasia’s Perth office. We were looking for someone who could run the day-to-day administration of our office, as well as assist with project work for different teams. We needed someone who was adaptable, dedicated and intelligent. My team reached out to a couple of contacts and were sent Lotus Ho’s resume. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lotus has a hearing impairment. I will admit to being intimidated by this at first, not knowing how I would teach someone who required a different style of communication than what I was accustomed to. Over time though, I have found my experience working with Lotus to be easier than I imagined. Stepping out of my comfort zone has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done as a manager, and I want to encourage others to do the same.

My first experience interacting with Lotus was during our interview. She brought an interpreter with her – something my team hadn’t experienced before. We were unsure how to word questions: should we direct them to Lotus or to her interpreter? Should we adjust the way we asked questions to be more succinct, or was that condescending? Should we mention her hearing impairment, or was it wrong to ask about it? In the end, we asked Lotus what the biggest thing would be that we could do to help her feel welcome in the workplace, and her answer was so simple: communicate openly. She told us about previous issues she had encountered that could have been solved with open communication. In that moment, everything became clear. We were going to make mistakes. They would not be the end of the world. It’s only by talking about our mistakes that we can learn to do better.

Lotus has now been part of the Brunel team for nearly three months and has been an invaluable colleague during this time. She has learned how to maintain the office, as well as assist our finance, recruitment, human resources and payroll departments. She has picked up the different systems for all these areas and is highly adaptable, moving between tasks easily. Just like many new jobs, there has been a lot to learn in a small amount of time. Lotus told me she was anxious at first at the prospect of learning so much. However, she expressed that her teammates’ patience and calm manner has given her the confidence to overcome that anxiety.

Working with Lotus, I’ve been privileged to learn more about her life. She has two grown sons who she is incredibly proud of, and I love seeing her face light up when she tells me about them. Lotus has shared with me her experience of going through school at a time when interpretation support was severely lacking. She told me about learning ASL, then Australian sign language (Auslan) and English. I can see how hard she has worked to receive the level of education the hearing community often takes for granted. This has given her an uncanny ability to problem solve and a level of determination that is admirable.

Adjusting our workplace to be inclusive for Lotus has been simple. Small changes like making sure the subtitles are shown on the TV in the lunchroom and learning to sign a few phrases in Auslan have been easy. We have on occasion used voice-to-text apps to assist us with more complex conversations, but in the end we’ve found our groove in simplicity, writing down what we want to say. Lotus and I can communicate relatively well in Auslan, but I’ll admit I still have a lot to learn. We use messenger apps and email to communicate on the computer, but in person, a mixture of Auslan and simple gestures are enough for us to understand each other. We have regular conversations and encourage each other to be open. Telling each other when we have made mistakes or have not been clear has been the simplest way to remain accountable to each other. Maintaining this open communication means Lotus feels safe to tell me when I am doing something that is not right for her, allowing us to adapt as we go.

Not everyone’s adjustments will be the same. There are as varied requirements in the Deaf community, as there are anywhere else. I am not an expert in the Deaf community, and I don’t want to advise individuals or companies on best practice, as each situation is unique. However, my experience working with Lotus has made me realise it’s easier than you think to support a colleague with a hearing impairment. A willingness to grow from our mistakes and adapt our working style means everyone can feel included, supported and able to thrive in the workplace – truly a worthy goal.

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