Artificial intelligence and sign language
Is your workplace equipped to support employees who are deaf?
|4 minute read|
Past data shows employment rates for people with hearing loss is 16-20 per cent lower, however the rapidly growing use of technology in the workplace is opening the door to greater employment opportunities.
Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2019 found that 3.6 million people in Australia live with some form of hearing loss, which is expected to double to 7.8 million by 2060.
While this number increases, low employment rates for people who are deaf highlights the deaf employee gap in the workplace. According to the Health Care Industry Association, employment rates for people with hearing loss are 20 per cent lower for men and 16 per cent lower for women.
A qualified Auslan (Australian sign language) interpreter and a child of deaf parents, Deaf Connect Organisational Growth and Impact Manager Rachel Lai was raised with Auslan as her first language and has seen first-hand some of the technological advancements in Australia for people who are deaf.
“With faster broadband speeds, we’ve seen the introduction of video remote interpreting (VRI), which leverages video conferencing platforms to allow the deaf community access to an interpreter in situations where it may not be so easy to obtain,” she said.
“Prior to VRI, gaining access to an interpreter in person was quite difficult due to the limited supply and availability of interpreters.
“Technology has alleviated some of the burden of this by bringing an interpreter into the workplace via video connection, thus allowing for instant access to an interpreter.
“This has been particularly important to the deaf community that reside in regional, rural and remote locations, who may not have any interpreters located in their immediate geographical location.”
The VRI technology is significant to Ms Lai, as she is one of the pioneers who brought the technology to Australian health clinics.
“When the service was first established in Australia, the uptake of VRI was slow,” she said.
“There was often an assumption within the deaf community that VRI would replace the preferred method of interpreting, which is onsite interpreting, but the intention was to never replace onsite interpreting at all, rather it was to complement it.”
“Nowadays, VRI has become well established in the deaf community as more and more of its members are enjoying the benefit of having access to an interpreter on demand.
“Equally organisations and government agencies are seeing the benefits of providing access to interpreters for day-to-day operations such as team meetings and performance reviews, right through to ensuring the services are equitable for all.”
Ms Lai said deaf people previously often relied on tele-typewriters, fax machines, text messaging and emails as methods to communicate with other employees, however this can be problematic, as it relied on a deaf person’s second language – English.
VRI in practice
Deaf Connect Auslan Translation Services Team Leader Sheena Helton has worked in the sector for more than 10 years and, like Ms Lai, she also has a special connection to the cause, being deaf herself.
She said since the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of VRIs had been more prevalent in and out of the workplace, as remote working took off.
“We use VRI for meetings with clients and internally with my team,” Ms Helton said.
“We relied on it a huge amount, particularly working with a variety of external clients.
“I prefer using this method simply because I can feel more engaged with my clients and, as a deaf person, VRI has given me the opportunity and the empowerment to engage with them directly.”
Ms Helton said when it came to the workplace, having the right technology to support employees who were deaf was crucial to their ability to succeed and feelings of belonging.
“In my workplace, we use a lot of technology. The benefits of which are twofold – not just for me personally but for others as well,” she said.
“It's amazing working within a deaf organisation. I feel that connection with the organisation simply because they understand my needs and my culture. I feel more engaged when it comes to accessibility and I feel much more supported.”
Ms Helton said she used a note-taking app within Microsoft Teams, as writing notes conventionally meant she missed the conversation by not looking at the interpreter.
“Sometimes I might miss the finer details so, with the note-taking app, I can concentrate on what the speaker is saying and then read the transcript afterwards,” she said.
“It’s also a good prompt to understand what I needed to do and what actions need to be done coming out of that meeting.”
Implementing technology in your organisation
Ms Helton’s message to organisations who have employees who are deaf is to ensure they had technology on hand such as note-taking apps, VRI platforms and video call software.
“Don’t forget to ask the deaf person what their preferred method of communication is, whether it be written, signed or oral,” she said.
“There’s a lot of technology out there that is fit for purpose.
“Learn, adapt and use it.”
Ms Lai said there were also other important inclusions in the workplace which might be overlooked.
“Other technologies that are available and used by organisations that can benefit deaf employees are assistive technology devices such as visual smoke alarms and notification devices, which can be synced to smartphones or tablets to prompt when there is an incoming video call, text message or other notifications,” she said.
“In addition to this, I encourage all employers that have staff members who are deaf or those who are considering employing deaf people to tap into programs such as the Employment Assistance Fund (EAF).
“EAF is a federal program delivered by Job Access, which provides financial assistance for eligible people with disability to obtain workplace-related modifications and/or access to services such Auslan interpreters, captioners and Deafness Awareness Training for organisations.
“If you would like to learn more about Deaf Connect or Auslan education, visit www.deafconnect.org.au.”