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Show and tell

June 26, 2007 7:24 AM
By Vicky Frost

Working with hearing or visually impaired colleagues can mean rethinking the way you communicate. But finding a common language is easier than it seems.

How did you greet your colleagues this morning? A strangled "Hi!" as you juggled handbag and gym kit while taking off your coat and turning on your computer? Perhaps just a wave as you disappeared behind your screen, or a shouted "Hello" as you jogged off on the coffee run?

Much of our day-to-day office interaction follows a similar pattern. Snatched conversations with the backs of people's heads as we leave for a meeting; raised eyebrows behind a colleague's back; exaggerated "drinks" gestures to your mate across the office. This communication shorthand is what keeps offices ticking over - easily understandable signals that are an inclusive workplace social jargon. But sometimes, they aren't quite so inclusive. Not for workers with either a hearing or visual impairment - or both - at any rate.

Kate Livesey is the web and intranet manager at the deafblind charity Sense, which employs a number of people with hearing and/or visual impairment. When Kate started her job, she found herself having to rethink the way she communicated at work. "I'd never had any experience of working with visual or hearing-impaired people, so it was quite a challenge, and I was a little apprehensive," she says. "It wasn't anything I was used to in a general office - you're used to just shouting something over the desk - and in some ways it's completely different in this office."

Disability at work is often (wrongly) associated with access issues for people with restricted mobility, and seen as an issue for employers, rather than employees. But communicating with colleagues is essential on a professional and, equally importantly, a social level. It's about everyone in the office having a common, shared language.

Kate is line manager to Nick Southern, Sense's intranet assistant, who is deaf and has tunnel vision. She has been taking an intensive course in British Sign Language (BSL). "BSL is something that was always in the back of my mind but never got to the top of my to-do list," she says. "When I was asked if I'd be willing to learn I thought, 'What a great opportunity!'. I can practice with Nick between classes too."

Technology has a big part to play in effective office communication - instant messaging and email, for example, are useful tools for those with and without sight, thanks to braille displays and software that "speaks" text to the user. Jim Lewis, who is blind, is Sense's campaign assistant. "I couldn't do this without technology - I use it for every aspect of the job," he says. He scans letters into his computer, which "speaks" them back to him, and can also read internet pages to him.

"People will chat among themselves in an office," says Nick Southern, "just talking about interesting bits and pieces - watercooler moments. And often I will miss out on that communication, so staff in the office will message me with what they've been talking about."

Effective communication can be lowtech too - Liz Ball, Sense's parliamentary officer, who has no hearing or sight, uses a braille display with her computer, but she also has a simple board on her desk where her colleagues check in and out if they enter or leave the office, so she knows who is working around her. But, while sharing documents and communicating by the written word is important (who doesn't spend half their working day fielding messages?), so is face-to-face communication. It's easy to be scared by the prospect of communicating by sign, but avoiding personal contact can make those with visual and hearing impairments feel extremely isolated.

"It's different here, but in a former job, people would never approach me to talk to me," says Nick. "There was a kind of fear of not knowing how to communicate with me - people felt it was impossible."

For workers who are deafblind, face-to-face communication utilises the Deafblind Manual Alphabet, where a word is spelled onto the palm of the person you're conversing with. The alphabet is quick and easy to learn, making it the perfect language to pick up in a lunch hour. "To communicate with Nick, for example, I'll use deafblind manual," says Jim Lewis, "There are a lot of different ways of communicating, and it's about working with each other to find the best way."

But, says Malcolm Matthews, head of community service and information at Sense, the fear of finding a way to communicate with deafblind workers means employers are worried about hiring them. "I know of many deafblind people now who are in the workplace and are recognised by their colleagues as valued employees," he says. "But I also know quite a lot of deafblind people who could be in work but aren't, because they haven't been given a chance - and the longer you're not in work, the harder it is to start."

The idea of employing a person with visual and/or hearing impairment can seem more of a hurdle than it actually is, particularly if the workforce is willing to learn new ways of communicating. "In our team meetings we have to be a bit more structured - but it's good practice," says Malcolm. "It's good if you don't all talk at once. To make it work for a deafblind person in a meeting, you maybe have to slow down a bit and be clear about what you're trying to do."

And is changing your old work patterns really such a big deal? As Kate Livesey says: "All it involves is a different way of working, it's no more difficult. The differences really aren't that big and you get used to them very quickly. To me, now it doesn't feel any different from any other job."