Making hybrid workplaces more accessible for Deaf workers

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2023 National Disabled Members' Conference
7 July 2023

Conference notes that since the Covid-19 pandemic there has been a massive shift to hybrid working, with many of our members now splitting their time between home working and the workplace.

This has resulted in benefits to many disabled workers who can manage their impairment better at home, with short breaks and more flexible start and finish times. However, many Deaf members who are native British Sign Language (BSL) speakers face increased barriers due to online working.

In the workplace, Deaf worker should have access to a BSL interpreter who can interpret conversations with colleagues, clients and members of the public.

However, when working from home Deaf BSL workers rely on remote BSL interpretation services and are therefore unable to receive phone calls when homeworking. Instead, calls need to be arranged in advance and the worker has to book a remote BSL interpreter and then call their colleague, client or member of the public back.

This can lead to some colleagues feeling it takes too much time or energy to arrange to speak to a Deaf BSL staff member by phone through their own language. This can lead to the worker being left out of key discussions and facing isolation from workmates and from team decision making.

Email is not a substitute because for Deaf native BSL speakers, English is a second language and emails can lead to miscommunications and misunderstandings.

Although some other countries, including the United States, have videophone relay services that allow Deaf workers to receive incoming calls that are simultaneously translated into BSL, this technology is not yet common in the UK. Some organisations individually contract with a video relay company but there is no general ability for Deaf people to be able to make outgoing calls in their own language, and this applies not just to the workplace but to every aspect of Deaf people’s lives

Deaf workers also face other barriers when homeworking as part of a hybrid schedule. Online meetings require the Deaf worker to constantly focus on the interpreter or they may miss parts of the meeting, unlike hearing people who can look away from the screen and still hear what’s happening. Interruptions that don’t go through the chair can also be hard for the interpreter to pick up and the Deaf worker may miss out on important context.

Online meeting platforms often allow interpreters to be “pinned” but they can still move about on the screen, causing confusion and interruption to the meeting for the worker. Deaf workers can find these meetings exhausting and this can reduce their ability to participate as they would like.

Conference therefore calls on the National Disabled Members Committee to:

1)Raise awareness of the barriers to communication and to taking part in online meetings that Deaf (native BSL) workers face when working hybridly

2)Seek to update UNISON’s guide to hybrid and home working to include the barriers faced by Deaf workers and ways these can be addressed by employers

3)Support appropriate campaigns to expand government funded videophone BSL interpretation services for all