Accessibility: Understanding Communication

Helping employers fulfill their obligation to provide disability-related accommodations is something that is routinely expected of human resources professionals. Organizations look to human resources as the experts on the ‘human’ side of the workforce and supporting disability accommodation process clearly falls into that domain. However, the range of disability types that exist is as broad as how it affects an individual’s ability to function in the workplace. This makes it impossible to become an expert in all the possible job accommodations that are available.

As a result, human resources professionals may be asked to source out accommodation options for a disability type that they haven’t the slightest close on how to get started. This is especially true for employees who are deaf. The condition is one that often creates panic for human resources professionals when they asked to ‘book an interpreter’.

This is understandably a challenge for those who haven’t been exposed to people with deafness and other levels of hearing loss. Unlike purchase of a ramp to remove a barrier for wheelchair users, removing barriers to communication access involves a lot more than calling a contractor. This article lays the ground work for providing communication access by describing the communication constructs that exist in the workforce.

The first thing that human resources staff must understand is that the provision of sign language interpretation must be linked to not only to the employee’s job related duties but also the other areas that can have an impact on the individuals career. In addition, conversations that occur on the office or work floor do not have equal weight in terms of the employer’s obligation to accommodate.

Some types of conversations have a greater need for communication access support than others. To assess which types have priority, one must have a basic awareness of the communication levels occur in the workplace, which are formal, facilitative or casual.

Formal Conversations

Formal communication takes place during job interviews, performance reviews, training sessions and all other conversations where it is critical that everyone fully understands each other because miscommunications can have a detrimental impact on the relationship. This makes providing sign language interpreter essential.

Facilitative Conversations

Facilitative communication involves sharing of information that, though important, is not as formal as those cited above. Examples of a facilitative conversation include a project update meeting between a manger and an employee, an assembly line worker asking a co-worker for a hammer and so on. While each party must be able to understand the other, this level of conversation tends to be spontaneous and intended facilitate an activity.

There are times, however, when providing a sign language interpreter is recommended during for conversations at the facilitative level. This includes shop safety talks, business networking events, conference speeches/workshops and so on. An interpreter would ensure that employees with hearing disabilities have an opportunity to be fully engaged in the event.

Casual Conversations

Hearing and deaf employees share a responsibility to make conversations work at the casual level. This is because the goal of such exchanges is to develop or maintain relationships between people. Casual conversions include friendly talk between colleagues, typical lunchroom ‘chit-chat’, water cooler gossip sessions and other random workplace exchanges that are not directly related to the work. Trying to provide a sign language interpreter for every exchange that occurs on this level would not only be a logistical nightmare, it tends to be outside an employer’s duty to accommodate.

Even then, there are times when employers may be obligated to provide a sign language interpreter at events involving conversations at the casual level. For example, company celebrations or holiday parties can be considered work-related events because they have a goal of reaffirming or building team cohesiveness. Without an interpreter being present to provide access in a complex conversational milieu, deaf employees would not enjoy an equal opportunity to network or establish new relationships with new colleagues. They become spectators to the festivities – not participants.

In closing, being able to identify the setting that the conversation will take place makes it easier to predict when communication access is needed and set the accommodation process in motion before it becomes a contentious issue.