Millions of people have disabilities that affect how they communicate. How can internal communications professionals keep everyone in the loop and ensure all employees feel welcome and included?

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3rd April 2018

An email to all staff. A sales presentation. A job interview. A chat by the water cooler. All pretty routine occurrences for an internal communications professional. But what if one or more of the people involved has a disability that affects their communication?

Nine million people in the UK have hearing loss, and another two million have sight loss. Some of them probably work for your organisation. Conditions such as dyslexia and autism can also affect how people communicate.

There’s no reason that people with these conditions can’t do most jobs as well as anyone else. In fact, in the UK, the law requires employers to make “reasonable adjustments” so that workers with disabilities can get on with their jobs.

For blind and partially sighted people, this might mean providing software that magnifies text, or screen readers that read text out loud, such as ZoomText or JAWS (Job Access With Speech). It could also involve altering lighting levels, allowing people to bring a guide dog to work, or assigning some duties to other staff. For people with hearing loss, it might mean providing video-calling software such as Skype, using text messages to communicate, or providing speech-to-text services.

Employees can also apply for grants under the government’s Access to Work scheme to cover the cost of more specialised support, although recent spending cuts have made these harder to get, and a cap on the value of grants means support for those who rely on sign language interpreting is limited.


Building intelligence on disability

For internal comms practitioners, there are plenty of ways to provide more support to colleagues who need it.

The Business Disability Forum (BDF), which helps employers become “disability smart”, publishes extensive advice on communication at work.

For written communications, the BDF suggests a number of measures to make materials accessible to those with visual impairments, dyslexia or autism. These include using a sans serif font in a large point size; avoiding italics, underlining, capitalisation and coloured text; explaining images to those who can’t see them; and adding subtitles to videos.

As well as detailed practical guidance, the BDF offers more general tips on how to treat people with disabilities. Some of it is common sense – and some of it is probably not-so-common sense.

First of all, treat people like you would anyone else, don’t make assumptions and, if in doubt about what someone needs, ask.


Removing barriers

Most disabilities, the BDF points out, are not obvious, and “you are unlikely to know whether or not even someone in a small, internal audience has a disability. It is therefore essential to remove barriers wherever possible, and regularly offer to provide material in alternative formats”.

Jo Clay is head of inclusive resourcing at Equal Approach, which helps organisations make their recruitment processes more inclusive. She says the technical challenges of making communications accessible are relatively straightforward. The real challenges are the barriers in the recruitment process – such as jobs boards that don’t work with screen readers, or not offering the option of phone interviews – and the views of employees.

“Perception is probably the biggest challenge,” says Jo. “The fear of ‘getting it wrong’ can often steer recruiters and hiring managers into a fixed mindset where they focus on reasons why a person with a visual or hearing impairment may not be able to perform elements of a role, rather than focusing on the areas they could excel at and the value their unique perspective would bring.”

Organisations can improve, she says, by simply asking employees or candidates who have sight or hearing loss to give feedback on the recruitment process.

“Progress is being made in this area by many large employers, as they look to become more inclusive,” says Jo. “But in general, many employers are still a long way from being exemplary in supporting those with visual and hearing impairments.”


Everyone is different

One employer that takes inclusion very seriously is the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

Pat Mossop, the charity’s head of internal communications and engagement, says: “We have a really specific and consistent way of laying out documents so they can be converted easily by someone using assistive technology, like digital braille outputs and screen readers. This way, someone with sight loss can engage with the content on as equal as possible a basis with someone who is sighted.”

Everyone at RNIB uses a Word template to create documents, with heading styles, font size and so on. “All staff go through specialist training to create accessible documents, as well as on how to guide someone who’s partially sighted,” says Pat. “In meetings, everyone always introduces themselves and says who they are, so everyone knows who is in the room. It’s the simple stuff that matters most.”

Alongside practical steps like these, Pat says it is vital to realise that everybody is different.

“Everyone with sight loss has different preferences and manages in different ways, and that’s really personal to them. So don’t make the assumption that everyone is the same. The way you clarify it is just by asking the person: does this work for you? How would you like that information? What are your preferences? Have that conversation.”

For instance, since some people with sight loss have some form of vision, they may be happy to read short documents in an accessible format, but for longer documents they may prefer an audio tool, such as a screen reader. It’s up to the individual.

Understanding how different people work and absorb information is key, says Pat, and is exactly the kind of thing internal comms people ought to be doing anyway.

It’s also important to have “respect for the value that diversity brings”, he says. “Different people bring different things. By having sight loss, you have that lived experience that sighted people don’t and that hugely adds to our work.”


Best practice intranets

Many employers are following RNIB’s lead and starting to see the value in making improvements.

Rosaleen Kelly is internal communications delivery lead at Scottish Water, which has been increasing its focus on making communications accessible, and has recently launched an upgraded intranet with accessibility at its heart.

Rosaleen says: “When we reviewed our content, we found a few easy things we could improve, like adding text alternatives for images, adding transcripts for video and audio, and subtitling video. On text pages, using proper heading structures and contextual links helps technologies like screen readers make sense of our pages.

“For me, it’s just part of the good practice that includes varying your communication styles, using plain English, using visuals and tailoring your content. Even people who don’t have hearing loss can benefit from subtitles on a video, and if everyone can access the same version, I hope it feels more inclusive.”


Insight from internal networks

Scottish Water has an internal disability forum, a group of employees who support each other, broaden understanding across the organisation and help test emerging IT systems. Rosaleen’s team works with the forum to help test communications and suggest improvements.

Jonathan Bryson, chair of Scottish Water’s internal disability forum, says that effective communication is vital for supporting people with disabilities. “Making adjustments to internal communication channels and materials ensures that people with hearing loss or visual impairments are included and get the messages that the rest of their colleagues receive. Those changes are an important signal about the values of the company – that all employees are important and the company wants to support all colleagues in delivering their work and being part of the organisation.”

Internal communications can also be used to raise awareness of specific medical conditions and diversity as a whole. Colleagues with invisible disabilities or health issues particularly might not identify themselves as living with these conditions.

“Some people may prefer to keep things private, and others may feel it will reflect negatively on them,” says Jonathan. “If internal communications can spread awareness of conditions or the support the organisation can give, this can create a more open culture and encourage staff to talk about their circumstances and seek support where needed. It can also help colleagues better relate to disabled team members, and perhaps also customers that have disabilities.”

Rosaleen sees her team’s work with the forum as part of regular stakeholder planning and considerations. “It’s not always about doing something differently,” she says. “We coach leaders to understand their team, their needs and create the environment where people can speak to their manager about anything they need to do their job and feel part of the Scottish Water community.

“It’s about more than just making sure we don’t accidentally exclude anyone, it’s crucial to explore what we can do to ensure all our communities – stakeholders, colleagues, peers – are able to engage and contribute.”


Fighting feelings of helplessness

But even when employers are sympathetic, cultural issues can create challenges for those with hearing and sight loss.

Mike works in marketing in the building services industry in San Francisco and has hearing loss in both ears. He doesn’t mince his words about what’s it’s like to be hard of hearing at work.

“It’s really hell,” he says. “It’s a competitive world, and people will use any sign of weakness to attack or ignore you. It can be hard to get ahead.”

Often, it’s a case of “missing random parts of words, sentences and conversations, then trying to cover your ass when asked a direct question”, he says. “I guess I kind of appreciate the sharpened focus of being a better ‘non-verbal’ listener, but this is not entirely sufficient. The overall feeling is one of helplessness and being left out.”

Mike’s view of hearing aids is that they “suck”, are expensive and perform poorly. “Mine fail all the time, at the most crucial moments.” He believes employers should do more to raise awareness of disability and age discrimination – “There’s a deep fear of being seen as old and weak” – but on an individual level.

“First you have to recognise the problem, which is often really difficult,” he says. “Then I might counsel someone to tell trusted colleagues about their disability so they have that person’s back in meetings. It’s not realistic to expect everyone to be really ‘out front’ about a disability.”

The experiences of Mike and others chime with comments from members of the UK’s British Deaf Association in a 2012 survey on workplace issues. One person said they were stuck at the bottom rung of their organisation for eight years and that “as a deaf person, I couldn’t get promoted”. Others blamed cuts in government grants for making it “virtually impossible” to get promoted if you relied on sign language.

Many deaf people reported trouble getting job interviews, and even those who didn’t reveal they were deaf before an interview found that employers would “back off” once they found out.


Changing perceptions

It’s clear that the cultural challenges facing people with disabilities in the workplace are deeply ingrained. But many companies are taking concrete steps to make the necessary shift in thinking.

In 2015, CGI began using live captioning for its quarterly staff teleconferences, allowing deaf employees to participate in real-time. The IT company runs a capability network to encourage employees to share experiences. Its president of UK operations, Steve Thorn, has said he has been “overwhelmed by the stories which our members had previously kept to themselves and, through the network, finally had the courage to share. It starts the ripples of confidence and conversation.”

In London, Brent Council has taken communications into account in a major refurbishment of its civic centre, introducing audio and visual notifications to enable visually impaired councillors to participate fully in political debates, and even installing audio and visual controls in the lifts.

Pat Mossop of the RNIB says the key to making things better is focusing on what people can do, not what they can’t. “People with sight loss work and flourish across all sectors and are super-talented,” he says. “All over the world, people are doing jobs that others might think couldn’t be done with sight loss. What needs to be improved is people challenging those perceptions and thinking what the opportunities could be. It’s just about respecting other people, thinking about the contribution they can make and not putting barriers up.”



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