How to Support People with Sensory Disabilities

9th May 2022

Last week was Deaf Awareness Week, an event that aims to educate the public about people with sensory disabilities and how they impact their daily lives.

Now is a great time for organisations to consider deepening their understanding of employees with sensory issues and developing ways to support them at work.

This article will look at the primary sensory disabilities and common challenges people face in work environments. We’ll also discuss methods organisations can use to promote better understanding in their teams and make it easier for people with disabilities to thrive.

What does it mean to be deaf in the workplace?

11 million people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing, with 900,000 severely or profoundly deaf. So, it’s not uncommon for an employee to be experiencing a level of hearing loss.

But deaf people at work don’t all experience the same thing. One employee who is completely deaf may require written materials or use sign language. Meanwhile, others may only experience partial hearing loss and feel too embarrassed to raise this in meetings and group activities.

Though workplace stress impacts all employees, research has shown that people experiencing deafness face added stressors at work, including communication and isolation issues.

If organisations and their people are aware of these circumstances, they can encourage deaf people at work to ask for the help they need. Similarly, providing these employees with anonymous outlets for communication lets them feel comfortable to raise any concerns they may have at work.

What are the levels of deafness?

As we mentioned, not all deafness is the same. Hearing impairment encompasses 4 levels, separated by the decibel (dB) people can hear. Let’s look at the levels of deafness so teams can better understand how to help employees within these categories.

Mild deafness: (21–40 dB) people find it challenging to hear quieter or whispered conversations, especially when mixed with background noise.
Moderate deafness: (41–70 dB) people struggle to understand speech and often need higher volume levels for audio outlets, such as TV, internet, and radio.
Severe deafness: (71–95 dB) people find it hard to hear speech at normal levels, requiring louder voice levels. They also struggle to follow group conversations.
Profound deafness: (95 dB) Louder sounds and speech are very difficult or impossible to hear or decipher.

Frequency also plays into a person’s ability to hear. Though some people who are deaf have the same level across all frequencies, others may experience different levels of deafness across frequencies.

What are the challenges of being a deaf person at work?

Deaf people at work may face challenges that other employees may not consider. A 2020 survey from the Royal Association of Deaf People found that 53% of deaf employees didn’t feel supported at work, while 69% reported feeling lonely in the workplace. Additionally, 60% of respondents said they were not offered progression opportunities at work.

In other words, being deaf at work can be othering, especially when colleagues and leadership may not fully understand their situation. When it comes to people who are hard of hearing, there are plenty of things they may find difficult, including:

  • Following along with spoken instructions.
  • Absorbing or understanding verbal meetings.
  • Communicating within a team, such as group brainstorms.
  • Building strong relationships with coworkers and feeling comfortable at team events or within social interactions.

What are the other main sensory disabilities, and how might they impact someone’s work life?

Did you know that 20% of the UK working population is defined as disabled? Organisations need to be well informed to help employees become more aware of sensory disorders for Deaf Awareness Week and beyond.

Here are a few of the other primary sensory disabilities that employees may deal with, for which we’ll go into more detail later:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Visual Impairment
  • Sensory Processing Disorder

Employees with these disorders experience the workplace differently.

Though the UK law for Reasonable Adjustments requires organisations to support people with disabilities, it’s more than just a necessity. Prioritising understanding, awareness, and inclusivity can help teams empower these employees and improve their overall experience and satisfaction.

At a high level, flexibility and listening are crucial to these employees’ best interests. With optimal accessibility, people with sensory disabilities can reach their full potential and engage more productively.

Sense highlights some of the main challenges these individuals may face, including:

  • Communication
  • Progression in their role
  • Isolation
  • Stress and burnout
  • Productivity

Let’s take a deeper look at how businesses can use the above difficulties as a guide to improve workplace culture and experience.

Communication

Sensory disorders can hinder a person’s ability to communicate with their wider team, because they may struggle to keep up with sound or visual cues.

But issues go beyond their sensory limits. These employees may feel separate from their teammates due to their differing experiences, which makes it difficult to develop strong professional connections and work effectively in a team. Additionally, people may struggle with their work if they feel too embarrassed to ask someone to repeat themselves or provide information in another format.

These challenges also come into play for employees who work remotely. If video conferencing is a primary form of communication, people may find it difficult to follow or digest important information. Similarly, people with hearing troubles may find communication tactics like voice memos ineffective compared to receiving information in writing.

Progression

Employees with sensory disabilities have reported problems with progression opportunities within their business. They often feel they are not considered for promotions because of what makes them different.

Providing employees with a voice regarding these challenges can help them feel heard and increase their growth opportunities. Trickle provides organisations with a platform where employees can share their concerns and suggestions, offering chances to start conversations and spark change on these issues.

Isolation

Sensory disabilities can make some employees stand out. They could feel misunderstood or fail to connect with others in social situations. These challenges could lead to isolation and cause people to feel less comfortable within their team environment.

Isolation can also be a problem for employees who work remotely. If organisations run virtual events, people with sensory abilities may have difficulty focusing on or understanding video calls. Virtual trivia nights or office drinks could lead to awkward pauses or miscommunications that may deepen discomfort.

Stress and burnout

The unique obstacles of people with sensory disabilities lead to increased risk of stress in the workplace brought on by isolation, communication issues, and misunderstanding.

As they struggle to keep up without the proper accessibility or inclusivity, these employees may find it challenging to cope with growing anxiety. In turn, these feelings could lead to lower job satisfaction. As stress makes work lives more challenging, people with sensory disorders are at an increased risk of burnout.

To learn more, check out our article on how to tell if your employees are burnt out.

Productivity

It’s no surprise that stress reduces productivity, and communication can slow the efficiency of completing projects. Without the right tools to get their job done, employees with sensory disabilities may not be able to perform at their best level.

Try Trickle for Free

How does Autism Spectrum Disorder affect employees?

Considering Deaf Awareness Week is more than just thinking about how to support people with hearing loss. Employees with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) also face sensory issues that lead to workplace challenges.

According to Autism Speaks, people with ASD experience some of the following:

  • Focusing troubles: People find it difficult to focus their senses on one thing, reducing productivity at work.
  • Sensory overload: It can be challenging to follow multiple sensory disruptions such as conversations or juggle multiple interactions or tasks.
  • Hypersensitivity: People may be sensitive to sound or other sensory stimuli, increasing their stress levels or impacting their ability to focus.
  • Sensory avoidance: When people are sensitive to sound, light, or smell, whether in the office or working from home, they may attempt to avoid it or disappear into a private or quieter setting.

Sensory challenges for people with ASD may harm employee experience and negatively impact people’s ability to blend into and engage with the company.

What can organisations do to support people with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Research has explored how increased awareness and accessibility can help employees with ASD best utilise their skill sets within an organisation. Organisations should provide consistent workplace routines and offer sensory environment considerations that establish a setting they can thrive in.

Apart from supporting these employees for optimal success, management should consider how to inform their teammates to support coworkers with ASD.

How does Autism affect how employees interact with their team?

Without the proper training, people may treat team members with ASD and sensory disabilities differently. For example, they might lose patience with these people, misunderstand or become offended by their behaviour.

These challenges could lead teams to isolate people that are different from the rest of the team. In fact, a study has shown that people with Autism often fail to fit into their work environment and sustain long-term employment.

If organisations run company-wide awareness events and training, they can offer teams the tools to support people with Autism, work with them efficiently, and boost their comfortability and potential.

Teams may also consider increasing communication channels to deepen their understanding of these employees. Anonymous opportunities to speak out could help team members share their challenges privately and increase trust within the organisation.

Trickle is a platform for all employees to feel comfortable to share their feelings, anonymously if they wish. It provides an opportunity for everyone to share experiences and challenges they may be feeling.

How can visual impairment impact employees?

Though we’re focusing on Deaf Awareness Week, visual impairment is also a sensory disability that presents prevalent challenges for employees. There are currently 84,000 blind and partially sighted people of working age in the UK. This disability, no matter the severity, can impact how team members digest valuable information or present ideas to the team.

Supporting people with visual impairments is especially important when building a positive workplace culture. Offering diverse accessibility options in multi-media formats allows people to work in whichever way is more effective.

Trickle offers a function called How Was Your Day? , which lets management teams gauge how their employees are feeling daily and provides real-time data insights. This approach enables businesses to expand their awareness of these people’s experiences and spot any weaknesses within the group that they could improve upon.

How can Sensory Processing Disorder impact employees?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is another disability to consider when looking to improve inclusivity within the workplace. SPD impacts how a person processes sensory information and a neurological level. From the touch of a loved one to the sounds of an office space, senses transmit through these people differently.

It comes down to the 8 sensory systems, which include:

  • Visual: What we see
  • Auditory: What we hear
  • Tactile: What we feel through skin contact
  • Olfactory: What we smell
  • Gustatory: What we taste
  • Vestibular: How we balance using the inner ear and brain
  • Proprioception: How we feel movement or the position of our body
  • Interoception: How we feel sensations within our body, such as a heartbeat, growling stomach, or dry mouth.

Though people with SPD may feel, hear, or see normally, their brains may receive this information differently. People with this disorder find it challenging to comprehend or act upon sensory signals, reducing their capacity to focus or adjust to new situations.

Ultimately, it can negatively affect someone’s ability to perform daily functions. As a result, people with SPD often experience unemployment or struggle to fit into a work environment.

When team members experience sensory data on a level that’s considered normal, it may be challenging to understand how someone else might struggle with those same things. But people with SPD have unique workplace experiences, whether from home or within an office. For example, they may not be able to balance well using a standing desk, or they may feel overwhelmed by using headphones for a work call or virtual meeting.

6 ways teams can improve the workplace for those with sensory disabilities

As organisations aim to increase their awareness of sensory disabilities, they can use this knowledge to develop effective ways to improve the workplace for these people. Let’s look at a few things teams could introduce to increase accessibility.

1. Employing BSL interpreters for important meetings

To better support deaf people at work, organisations could hire a Sign Language interpreter for important meetings. Having the interpreter present to convey essential information will improve communication for deaf employees and remind other team members of the diversity among them.

Managers can also ask deaf employees whether they sign using BSL or ASL to help people feel seen and be able to provide the best support.

Businesses may also want to provide employees with sensory issues with a communication channel through which they could request further support.

2. Supplying written materials

If businesses supply essential materials in multiple formats as a standard practice, it can increase company-wide communication. Simultaneously, this practice increases inclusion and accessibility for employees with sensory disabilities. For example, companies could provide instruction, updates and meeting notes in written form alongside providing video recordings.

Instead of attempting to keep up with one-time auditory instructions, brainstorms, or meetings, these employees can refer back to the recorded and written information. Creating a standard practice of access to this information allows all team members to feel included at work because they won’t need to work up the courage to request special accommodations or ask for instruction multiple times.

3. Increasing accessibility with braille

Including braille on workplace surfaces and equipment can improve the accessibility of visually impaired employees. For example, organisations could include braille on signs and keyboards to help team members navigate an office or complete tasks.

On top of this, businesses could offer visually impaired employees access to a refreshable braille display, which connects to digital devices and makes it easier to comprehend information on a screen. Similarly, they could provide visual impairment captioning on workplace videos, which would narrate the visual experience.

5. Providing employees with useful tools

The correct tools can make the workplace a more comfortable and efficient environment for employees with sensory disorders. Businesses could offer headphones for people who need to increase the volume of calls, meetings, or videos for work. These tools can also help employees better focus on the sound. As a result, people can perform better without distracting other team members.

5. Accommodating for regular breaks when overwhelmed

People with sensory disabilities and deaf people at work often become overwhelmed because of the extra stressors they experience. So, if businesses prioritise their wellbeing, these employees can feel more comfortable and safe at work.

Accommodating regular breaks helps team members with sensory issues reduce their risk of burnout and take the time they need to promote mindfulness. If they take breaks when feeling overwhelmed, it’ll be easier to adjust to workplace environments and avoid stressful outbursts.

6. Offering break out rooms or private spaces

Organisations may also offer these employees somewhere to go when they feel overwhelmed.

Private spaces allow employees with sensory disorders to calm themselves in an environment with fewer sensory distractions. Plus, it lets them step away from the rest of the team and focus on themselves and the present moment.

What can organisations do to increase awareness of employees with sensory disabilities in honour of Deaf Awareness Week and beyond?

Apart from increasing access for people with sensory impairments, organisations can help their team members better understand and empower people with sensory disabilities. We’ll cover a few things for teams to consider.

Publicly acknowledge awareness days dedicated to sensory awareness in your organisation

Publicly acknowledging days that raise awareness for sensory disabilities remind team members of these circumstances. It’ll show employees what these disabilities might look like and what they can do to support them.

Businesses might hold an event for these days, offer relevant volunteer opportunities, or send a company-wide newsletter that educates people on the matter.

Here are a few events dedicated to sensory disabilities that leadership can plan for:

  • World Autism Awareness Day: 2 April
  • Deaf Awareness Week: 2-8 May
  • Sensory Awareness Month: October
  • World Sight Day: The second Thursday in October

Provide company-wide deaf awareness or sensory disabilities training

Offering training is another excellent way to increase awareness of sensory disabilities in an organisation. Businesses could bring in a certified expert to supply employees with the knowledge and skills to work effectively with these team members. Company-wide education also increases inclusion, making people feel more welcome within the team.

Offer BSL courses to employees

If organisations provide sign language courses to all employees, these skills can enhance communication abilities between the team and deaf people at work. In fact, 48% of deaf survey respondents said their coworkers expressed interest in taking BSL courses. So, providing this opportunity may result in higher engagement and increased satisfaction.

Plan activities focused on accessibility

As HR teams plan professional social events for their employees, they could consider accessibility at the forefront. As a result, people with sensory disabilities may feel more comfortable attending these events and better connect with their coworkers.

How can organisations use digital tools to deepen their understanding of employees with sensory disabilities?

Digital tools can also improve communication and help improve awareness outside of Deaf Awareness Week.

Trickle allows businesses to deepen their understanding of people within their business, including those with sensory disabilities.

This platform provides a safe and open space where employees can anonymously raise issues and make suggestions to help one another. Plus, Trickle offers transparency to show that actions are being taken to implement improvements based on people’s suggestions.

With Trickle, organisations can prioritise wellbeing and offer a voice to all employees.

Why not try Trickle FREE for 28-days? Sign up here to get instant access and give your people a platform where they can speak up.

Stay in the know!

We produce a monthly Newsletter about all things HR and People Engagement.

To subscribe to our Newsletter, simply fill out your information.