Accommodating the Communication Needs of Deaf-Blind Employees

Accommodating the Communication Needs of Deaf-Blind Employees

by Teresa Goddard and Elisabeth Simpson, Job Accommodation Network, Volume 10, Issue 2, Second Quarter, 2012

When you think of an individual who is deaf-blind (also known as deaf-blindness, blind-deaf, dual sensory impaired, or combined vision and hearing loss), do you think of someone who is fully deaf and fully blind? Helen Keller might be an important historical figure that comes to mind. In reality, while there are individuals who are fully deaf and fully blind, many people who are deaf-blind have some usable vision and hearing. For example, some individuals may have grown up with some degree of vision loss and experienced a change in their hearing later in life, or vice versa. Other individuals may have been born with mild to moderate deficits in both vision and hearing. Others may have experienced trauma or illness at some point in their lives that resulted in both vision and hearing loss while older adults are likely to experience age-related vision and hearing impairments.

Workplace accommodation needs for deaf-blind employees will depend on the setting in which individuals will be working, their specific job tasks, and their unique hearing and vision needs. Typical concerns may include: equal access to information presented in meetings and trainings, effective workplace communication, access to printed materials, computer access, and emergency preparedness. For instance, the following accommodation scenarios involving workers who are deaf-blind show how reasonable accommodations can support effective communication in the workplace and allow equal access to employment opportunities.

  • Providing Equal Access to an Interview: A federal employer provided an interpreter who specialized in interpreting for individuals who are deaf-blind to accommodate a candidate who needed an interpreter to participate in a job interview.
  • Accommodating a Presenter who is Deaf-Blind: A research scientist had profound deafness and low vision. He needed to present research findings at a meeting. The employee created slides using a large font size and a high contrast theme. The employer provided an interpreter who used techniques for interpreting for Deaf-Blind individuals including standing within four feet of the individual to communicate questions and comments from the audience. A second interpreter voiced the employee’s signs for the hearing attendees.
  • Communicating with Coworkers: A student employee at a federal agency needed to interact with her team to plan and implement projects, but face-to-face communication was difficult for her and she had difficulty hearing on the telephone. Her most reliable method of communication was instant messaging (IM). The employer set up a secure IM client so that all team members could discuss projects via chat. The intern successfully exchanged ideas about team projects with team members who also found the chat logs useful.
  • Communicating with Clients: A consultant usually used email and IM to interact with clients remotely, but used a Deaf-Blind Communicator (DBC), a device which allows a Braille user to exchange messages with a sighted communication partner, to facilitate communication during face to face meetings when an appropriate interpreter was not available. He also used the device to interact with staff at restaurants when entertaining clients at lunch meetings.
  • Communicating with Public: An employee at a doctor’s office needed to ask intake questions at a check in counter. The employee had progressive hearing loss and was a Braille user. A JAN consultant suggested exploring use of devices that would allow the employee to type her responses on a keyboard or Braille keyboard and receive replies via Braille. Some examples of such products include the DBC, an Interpretype with a Braille display, or other interactive communication system.

Job seekers and employees who are deaf-blind are likely to be very knowledgeable about their accommodation needs, especially equipment and techniques that have served them well in other settings. Employers should be prepared to work with the individual, and likewise, individuals should be open to discussing their own ideas as well as effective alternatives. Remember that accommodations may be needed to allow effective communication during this process. Many helpful resources are available to assist in determining effective accommodation including: medical providers, vocational rehabilitation and other state agencies, assistive technology projects, and of course JAN.

For more JAN resources, visit JAN’s A to Z for:

You can also contact a JAN consultant to discuss accommodation ideas and get targeted suggestions. Additional resources include:

– Teresa Goddard, MS, Senior Consultant, Motor / Sensory Team

– Elisabeth Simpson, MS, Senior Consultant, Motor / Sensory Team

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