Build a More Inclusive Environment for People Who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing
For this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show, I was joined by Amanda Tuite CEO and co-founder of Access Vine to talk about disability inclusion for people who are deaf and living with hearing impairments.
Amanda Tuite is a leader in accessibility who co-founded Access Vine, based in the United States. Our conversation will cover disability inclusion for people living with deafness and how employers can be a lot more confident about employing people with disabilities.
Amanda and I met online and I myself have a disability. I was born with a rare genetic neuromuscular disability called spinal muscular atrophy and I’ve had my fair share of obstacles in trying to enter the workforce and get ahead in the workforce. Now we work with our clients on creating inclusive work cultures and removing any barriers that disabled people might face in trying to access employment.
I was sure I would learn a lot in this conversation with Amanda about people who are deaf and people who are living with hearing impairments. The terms used are interesting in themselves because hearing impairments is a term that we often hear in the UK, but Amanda is living in the US and I know that it’s not a term that’s used over there, so it’ll be interesting to have a conversation about language as well. There’s a lot of fear around using the wrong language and, in my experience, that can often lead to inaction which doesn’t help with building an inclusive work environment.
For my conversation with Amanda, we communicated through our interpreter Melissa because Amanda speaks with American Sign Language (ASL). To get us started I asked Amanda to introduce herself.
‘My name is Amanda Tuite, I’m CEO and co-founder of Access Vine. Access Vine is a company that focuses on providing access to websites in ASL and also providing training and consultation and we’re excited to be growing as we go.
Hearing impairment, as you mentioned in your introduction, is a term that’s often used in the medical field. Here in the US that happens as well. Typically, it’s not culturally acceptable in the deaf community. And the reason why is because it indicates to people that maybe we’re broken, but we’re not broken. We prefer to use the terms deaf or hard of hearing or deaf-blind depending on each individual, and their identity. We always encourage people to ask the deaf person themselves, what terminology should we use whilst we interact?’
What Amanda says is interesting because in the UK we often refer to the medical and social model of disability. I don’t know if that’s something that is referred to in the US. Essentially the medical model says that someone is disabled because there’s something wrong with them that needs fixing, that needs intervention. Whereas the social model says that someone is disabled because of barriers that are created in society. These could be physical barriers, in my case having steps where there could be a lift or a ramp. They could be procedural barriers or attitudinal barriers.
I asked Amanda, ‘Is that something that you talk about over in America?’
‘Everything you just mentioned is a yes. It’s very, very similar in America. We see a lot of prejudice, especially during the interview process and the application process when a deaf person applies for a job, they face a lot of fears. As was mentioned some people in workplaces aren’t sure where to look and they start to shut down and usually decide to move on to the next applicant which causes more harm to the Deaf community because we know there are a lot of people who are still learning how to be inclusive to people with disabilities.
In training, because deaf people are one of many different disability groups, often they focus on the broader umbrella of the term disability and deaf people are usually placed as a very low priority of what’s being discussed. The deaf experience and the deaf perspective is often not communicated during those trainings even though we’re everywhere. We have so many solutions to offer and we want to work with companies. We’re very well-versed in how to work with deaf, deaf-blind hard of hearing communities, and how to solve any communication barriers that companies or employers are worried about.
So, if and when you hire a deaf person who signs, does that mean that they need to have a sign language interpreter with them every day? That’s some of the misperceptions. Usually, the answer is no, we don’t need a sign language interpreter with us following us around every day. It depends, right? But there are many different accommodations that are already available besides that, that we could utilise.
For example, Video Relay Service. Once a company finds out that there is a service that is available at no charge to them, then they start to realise, “Oh, I don’t have to be afraid of the concept that deaf people can’t use the phone.” We can use the phone through the Video Relay Service. We are so grateful to the government agency, the Federal Communication Commission, who pays for the Video Relay Service platform. It’s really a life changer, a game changer for us. Working as a deaf professional now, we’re able to do sales, we’re able to do video conferences, meetings where we have a video interpreter who joins for that meeting.
It’s just so vital that we have more assistive technology, more tools to allow us to be able to access communication. If more people are aware of those kinds of tools, of those options and resources that are available, then all of a sudden, those barriers to employment diminish and our options become endless.’
I do a keynote talk, which is called, “Everything You Wanted To Know About Disability But Were Too Afraid To Ask” which covers some of the fears that employers have about employing disabled people. Some employers think that it costs more to employ a disabled person. Some employers think that disabled people take more time off work, sick or for therapies. Also, they’re concerned that disabled people are not being open about their disabilities. So, they don’t know what adjustments to put in place. These concerns are from some research that Disability Rights UK here in the UK conducted a few years ago.
I was interested to hear from Amanda what are some of the fears she has come across that employers have about employing deaf people.
‘One of the biggest fears is, “How am I going to communicate with this deaf person? How is a hard of hearing person going to use the phone? How can we do meetings? What does that even look like?”
There are so many things that are easy to solve though, with those fears, with some minor adjustments, those things can be taken care of. We’re able to go in and evaluate the workplace, realise what the functions are, make some additions, maybe some equipment. Then from there on out, it’s smooth sailing.
For example, “How can I communicate with that deaf person?” Maybe through the video relay phone. Maybe hire a sign language interpreter, especially when you’re having important meetings and trainings. There are programmes that support companies with the cost of hiring onsite interpreters. And those resources are available. Also, you just have to know what kind of resources are available and become familiar with deaf and hard-of-hearing services that are provided in your region.
So, for example, here in the US, we have approximately 38 commissions for the deaf and hard of hearing that people can reach out to. Start to explore and compare what the UK has.’
I asked Amanda, ‘What do the commissions do in the US?’
‘The commissions provide resources, a list of available interpreter agencies, for example, or they might provide available assistive technology options, like referrals to Video Relay Services. They’ll have a list of options and they provide basic training and some consultation.
They did reach out to Access Vine for more formal training and website translations; those are the kinds of things that we do as a company with the employer. What I’ve seen is once the employers take those trainings and they learn about communication with deaf and hard of hearing folks, deaf-blind as well, they do start to change some of their application processes to make it more accessible in ASL. So, it starts the ball rolling and starts to impact the hiring process.
When you show any type of inclusivity, using inclusive tools, for example, and having sign language on that application process, people start to feel comfortable. People start to feel more confident in applying for the job because it shows that they’re open to the idea of ASL and things like making sure that the training material has captions.
That’s just scratching the surface. There is so much information that’s available, in order to facilitate these possibilities to help people’s minds to open, help ship the attitude and feel it’s okay. You can’t know everything in the beginning. You have to be brave enough to make mistakes and show that you’re trying and work with deaf professionals. Include deaf professionals. Include people who have disabilities at the table. Employers don’t have to figure this out all on their own, there is support there for them.’
It’s interesting because there’s a phrase here in the UK, “Nothing about us without us,” that was coined in the 1990s with the Disability Rights Movement. But I think the USA had disability legislation before the UK did. The UK had the Disability Discrimination Act or DDA that came out in 1995. Now, there’s the Equality Act, that superseded the DDA in 2010. I think there is some criticism that when the Equality Act came out from a disability perspective, it wasn’t as strong as the DDA.
Amanda said that the “Nothing about us without us” phrase is prevalent in the United States too, adding, ‘If we had the power to change the future, I would love to see a stronger legislation, that keeps different entities accountable to make sure that we provide equal opportunity to all people including people with disabilities. Because my understanding is here in America, not enough cases actually go to court. People who are handling that are overloaded with the things that do arise. I would love to see more work done, and a heavier financial component granted to companies who are hiring people with disabilities as incentives to cover the cost of any accommodations or adjustments that might be needed.
We all have to put ourselves into this mission. We all want the same thing but we work separately sometimes, so it would be nice to have more collaboration.’
With Amanda talking about the commissions in the USA, we have various organisations that play a similar role in the UK. For example, we’ve got the British Deaf Association and we’ve got the Royal National Institute of Deaf People. I think from an employment perspective, one of the best resources that we’ve got is the Access to Work scheme which is government funding that employers can use to fund workplace adjustments.
I’ve used it myself to help pay for taxis to and from work when I couldn’t access public transport in my wheelchair. When I worked at the BBC, I also worked with several colleagues who were deaf and they used the funding to pay for British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters. I think the Access to Work scheme is a major resource over here in the UK.
There has been some research to say that government spending on Access to Work actually brings money back into the Treasury. So, something like for every one pound the government spend on the scheme, they get thirty pounds back into the Treasury through disabled people getting into employment, being productive, paying their taxes and spending their money in the economy. They’ve got a good return on investment.
Amanda said, ‘I see a lot of benefits for supporting employers getting prepared to hire people with disabilities. When they have learned what things to have ready, like a video interpreter ready to join those conferences, it helps to already have the ball rolling. There was a bill that was just proposed about all video conferencing accessibility, and that was a huge step forward. And still, we have a lot of work left to do when it comes to legislation, training and making adjustments to have disability-inclusive events.
I remember I went to one conference and we kept seeing the same workshops happening each time, and they would present on the same topics every year. One of the challenges that I see is there are no outcomes, no changes, and no action. There’s a lot of lip service and a lot of talk, but I want to see the results. I want to see the action taking place. That’s why I set up Access Vine in the first place because I was just tired of hearing the same song and dance over and over. I want to see the results. I want to start with the first step and keep it going.’
I know it’s a huge frustration for a lot of the clients that I work with. They feel that they’re not making an impact with the work that they’re doing. The needle is not shifting on workplaces becoming more diverse, more representative of our society and more inclusive. I can totally get where Amanda is coming from here.
I asked Amanda, ‘On the subject of action, what do you think employers should be doing to be more inclusive of disabled people and deaf people?’
‘Companies have what’s called a Supplier Diversity Program which starts the ball rolling. However, there are also some challenges and gaps in the process. If you have the intention to hire people with disabilities as suppliers and providers, my question is, why is the process so difficult and hard to find, to fill in those gaps between the corporations and then the suppliers? How do we connect those two different entities to get the type of results and improvements we’re looking for? How do we connect the company to the right people?
Often, corporations hire big-name companies that have no background in, understanding of or lived experience as people with disabilities. And then the cycle just continues. We end up back to square one with the results not really coming to fruition.
So, involving deaf people or involving disabled people more would be effective in getting the outcomes that we’re looking for. Not just for the benefits of working with the supplier who is a disability-owned business, but because you also get their passion and drive for action. By hiring these suppliers, you get more connections and a larger network of people with disabilities. You can share the suppliers’ community and also share their struggles and experiences of oppression, as well as their knowledge of where to look.
There’s a lot of resistance when we try to make moves to provide data. They usually want proof. They want us to prove ourselves first before they let us into the next step.’
I agree with Amanda because that’s additional work that’s put on the disabled community, and so it becomes more of a burden. And since this is kind of a newer concept, we have to be open to hiring people who might be a little bit newer. That mindset we might hold of having to hire people who have the most experience, we can flip to instead hire people who might be new to this but have the lived experience that means they are able to help you navigate and network to provide the results you’re looking for.
Next, I was keen to find out how employers can make their technology more accessible. I used to work in usability and accessibility at the BBC, and I talked a lot to my clients, particularly during the pandemic, when everybody suddenly started working from home and doing Zoom calls. It was then they realised that the technology was not accessible. As an example, at the beginning of the pandemic, I don’t think Zoom provided captioning, and if it did, it was through a third party. So, my team used the Google Workplace platform and that definitely had closed captioning.
I asked Amanda for her thoughts on how to make technology accessible and how employers should be selecting tools that are accessible.
‘I think a lot has to do with what they know is available. I really believe a platform where you could add different kinds of assisted technology and apps, based on different disabilities and what people need is important. That’s instead of everyone starting from scratch and each company having to find things. So we need a centralised platform that companies can tap into and get information from as well as data.
I typically refer to the JAN website which is a Job Assistive Network that is under the Office of Disability and Employment Policy. Their website has so many different accommodations that are available for different disabilities on their website. I usually use that as a guide for companies to use and find those resources. It’s based in America, but I think the UK could probably look there as well.
I’ve been trying my best to add the most recent information as to what’s available. The apps would be an example. So, Purple Video Relay service is one company that I use for my video phone accessibility. There are also text-to-voice types of calls, and apps, that could be utilised. There’s one called Nagish, and when I receive a call, it shows up on my phone and it’ll type in the text of what the person’s saying and then I type back and it’ll convert it into voice through a machine. It’s really cool. I tried it on my mom and she was like, “Who is this?”’
I agree that there’s all sorts of really cool technology out there some of which I’ve featured on this podcast. I’ve interviewed all sorts of founders of assistive technology. I even interviewed a couple of guys who developed some technology to help NASA communicate with the International Space Station and get over the time delay in communicating with the space station. They’ve now turned that into a communications tool, particularly aimed at how neurodivergent people might want to communicate. That was an interesting episode, but I think for me, my biggest experience is that employers need to think about accessibility right at the very beginning of an IT project or if they are procuring such technology.
I remember when I was working for a business, a colleague of mine was deaf. He was always being told off by the senior leadership team. He couldn’t complete his annual compliance training because the online learning system didn’t have subtitles, so, he didn’t know what was going on. The response of HR was, “We can just give you the words in a Word document.” I thought that was a degrading experience, why couldn’t we just make this online learning accessible from the get-go?
‘Right. Or just add translation to the training material. That’s something we do. It’s important to recognise that there are a lot of issues, but now we have assistive technology and people think that’ll make it all better. That just by adding this and this it’ll be fine. But some people have multiple disabilities or different challenges and you need to discover the right tools to accommodate that person.
That’s why we work with a lot of deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind folks in order to teach them how to ask for what they need and how to identify what kinds of accommodations work for the individual because what works for one person doesn’t work for somebody else.
My advice for employees and HR is to be open-minded and less defensive when employees ask for access or ask for interpreters or closed captioning. If you don’t know, reach out. Reach out to a subject matter expert for advice. It doesn’t hurt to ask. Right?’
We closed our conversation with the question I ask everybody when they come on the podcast which is, ‘What does inclusive growth mean for you?’
‘For me, inclusive growth means being part of society where we are valued and have access to information in order to grow. We have access to trainings, we have access to networking. That includes being able to communicate with the decision-makers, being a part of society and getting the support in return. That’s inclusive growth to me.’
If your organisation needs to make your website more accessible for deaf and hard of hearing and deaf-blind people, or want to arrange training as well or consultancy through Access Vine please connect with Amanda via her LinkedIn page or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get support developing your organisation’s inclusive business growth strategy please contact Toby and the team at mildon.co.uk.