Technology and “Deaf Gain”


CEO Blog

As anyone who has worked with me will attest, I always like to push the envelope when it comes to technology. I like to experiment and see how far it can take me. As a CEO, it seems only natural that I will look for solutions to everyday tasks. Who wants to manually log timesheets when there is an app that can do it automatically? Who wants to laboriously back up and save documents when you can sync them to the cloud?

Accessibility and collaboration are vital for an organisation that employs a diverse workforce with varying communication needs. This is particularly true for deaf and hearing employees, in the case of Deaf Action.

When I first started in my role at Deaf Action, I knew immediately that I wanted to overhaul the IT and phone systems. Any form of collaborative working was very reliant on email and phone conversations, which was not only inefficient with several versions of one document flying around but also inaccessible for deaf people who cannot hear on the phone. Deaf people make up 43% of our workforce so this was something that needed to be addressed.

It was my vision to have a system in place that would allow colleagues to speak directly to one another regardless of their preferred communication, and to work more efficiently as a team.

Interestingly, despite the apparently obvious gains (in my opinion), I experienced pushback on this vision – some felt their way of working was fine just as it was, and that I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Nevertheless, I persisted and implemented Microsoft 365 with a focus on Microsoft Teams. It is only natural that people will be resistant to change. Nevertheless, it is important not to let this resistance hinder progress.

For those who are not familiar, Microsoft Teams is a cloud-based collaborative teams software application. I was excited about the possibilities this would present particularly in conjunction with the other applications offered within the Microsoft 365 suite. For example, Yammer allows colleagues to communicate more informally and share updates – a bit like Facebook for the office! This greatly improved inter-office communication and organisational dynamics with staff feeling more included and knowledgeable about what was happening within the organisation. This is of particular importance considering that we have offices in Aberdeenshire and Dundee so staff can feel isolated from Deaf Action’s head office in Edinburgh.

Over time, with training and practice, staff built up confidence in using this new way of working. As to be expected, this process involved trial and error, requiring close collaborative working with the software company to address issues that came up while we were exploring its use. Nevertheless, it was looking positive with a gradually increasing uptake in this new–fangled way of working

However, it was not until COVID-19 and the subsequent nationwide lockdown in March 2020, that this vision realised its full potential. Staff was able to work from home on their own devices with minimum disruption to services and existing workloads (not with-standing the understandable disruption caused by COVID-19 itself). They were able to see each other on team video conferences, which reduced the feeling of isolation.

We even held a remote staff away day which normally takes place in a physical location with a lot of logistics involved and staff travelling from all over Scotland. This away day was different in that we were able to connect from the safety and comfort of our own homes, with both deaf and hearing staff able to access presentations via live-streaming software and BSL/English interpreters on screen. We even did a virtual escape room!

It took a lot of effort and some technical magic, but we achieved this and were proud of the outcome with immensely positive feedback. Some staff had been furloughed so this was a chance to connect and see other colleagues.

Although COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the world, the silver lining is that it has revealed the power of technology and the importance of facilitating access in a world that is working from home.

I have heard stories from deaf and disabled people who have experienced barriers in their workplace, not being able to access work meetings due to a lack of technical competence or consideration of their access needs. This makes me sad, but also more determined than ever to use my role as a deaf CEO to show others how accessible working can be achieved with the power of technology. We need to empower organisations to support their workforce and empower their workforce to understand what access looks like for them. It is not one size fits all, so a flexible and open-minded approach is important.

I am sure that if I were hearing and had no access needs, I would not even consider many things I have explored over the years. Being deaf gives an added dimension to my process, widening my perspective, and forcing myself to think outside the box. I see this as an example of deaf gain and how having deaf and disabled employees and leaders can benefit the whole organisation.

What examples can you think of, of how technology has made your working practice more inclusive, collaborative, efficient? I would be interested to hear from you in the comments.

Disclaimer – the purpose of this post is not to promote a specific software application but to demonstrate how deaf/disabled leadership can influence the implementation of technology and change working practice for the benefit of all employees.

Please comment if you have any views or points regarding this article.

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