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Managing Deafness or hearing loss at work

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Being able to hear clearly at work is a requirement for many jobs, and can help a person be productive and safe in their role. A person may not follow instructions at work as asked or respond to calls for service because their hearing may be impaired, not because they are not able to do the job.

People who are deaf or hard of hearing can have hearing loss ranging from very mild through to profound or complete. The majority of people have mild hearing loss and communicate verbally. People with complete hearing loss (deaf) may communicate in Auslan.

The two main types of deafness are conductive deafness and nerve deafness. Deafness at birth is known as congenital deafness, while deafness occurring anytime after this is called adventitious deafness. Deafness can be caused by injury, disease or genetics. Exposure to noise is the most common cause of adventitious deafness. Hearing loss can occur over time and sometimes remains unnoticed, as compensatory techniques are often used, like avoiding talking in noisy places.

Auslan and the Deaf community

People who have always been deaf or become deaf at an early age tend to experience deafness as a normal part of life and identify with the Deaf community. The Australian Deaf community is a network of people who share a language, culture and a history of common experiences. Auslan or Australian Sign Language is the language of the Australian Deaf community. Auslan is the uniquely visual spatial language that conveys meaning using hand shapes and movements, facial expressions and body orientation. Auslan has its own syntax, grammar and semantics and is not based on English.

A person who is deaf or hard of hearing does not automatically identify with the Deaf community, as not all people who are deaf use Auslan. People who become deaf or hard of hearing in adult life, are more likely to see themselves as a hearing person who now has difficulty hearing.

Workplace adjustments and solutions

For a person who is hard of hearing, a hearing aid may help them to communicate more effectively in the workplace. The Employment Assistance Fund does not cover the cost of hearing aids as they are considered medical aids. Hearing Aid Banks however, provide an alternative, limited source of hearing aids for people who are unable to fund the full cost of their own hearing aids and who are not eligible for other hearing services through the Department of Health’s Hearing Services Program.

Depending on the type and extent of hearing loss and the type of industry a person works in, there are a range of ways to help communicate with people that have a hearing impairment.

Profound hearing loss

There are many factors that can help people with profound hearing loss at work. Some changes to work tasks and the environment that may help include:

  • ask the person how they prefer to communicate. This may include lip reading, Auslan, written instructions or a combination of methods
  • if the person uses Auslan, consider using an interpreter – either in person or via the National Relay Service/Video Relay Service
  • use of the Video Relay Service (VRS). This is a free video telecommunication service that allows Deaf workers, to use their own language – Auslan - to make calls to hearing people . The VRS uses video telephones and similar technologies with a sign language interpreter available online. This can be accessed via a mobile phone, tablet or computer - all that is required is internet access and a phone that uses a windows operating system
  • use of the National Relay Service (NRS), which is similar to VRS. NRS uses relay officers to act as a go between the Deaf person, person who is hard of hearing or who has a speech impairment and the person they are calling. The relay officer types responses out so that the Deaf person  can read them, while speaking to the hearing person. Relay officers are the central link in the phone call. They stay on the line throughout each call to help it go smoothly, but do not change or interfere with what each person says. This service is also accessible via a mobile phone
  • avoid speaking in areas with limited space or poor lighting as this may limit the capacity of a person to see the speaker’s face, body or lips to help in their understanding
  • avoid communicating essential information in noisy environments
  • avoid conversing whilst eating or smoking and use active listening and effective interpersonal communication skills
  • ensure the person you are speaking with has your full attention
  • if working in environments where calling out to customers or clients is needed:
    • consider using ticket machines with number displays
    • ensure the person/s who are hard of hearing can see your face when calling out names or numbers
    • physically approach a person and perhaps touch them on the shoulder to alert them that you want to communicate with them
  • if you find it hard to get the message across verbally, use other ways of communication like email, paper and pen, message boards, computer tablets or body language and physical demonstration
  • consider alternative means of relaying information when conversing with a group of people, like in staff meetings or training.  For example present both verbally and with a PowerPoint presentation or make written agendas, training manuals and meeting minutes available to confirm any information that may be missed through verbal means
  • changing the workstation set up to place people with profound hearing loss facing toward colleagues or entry ways. This helps with the use of visual cues to compensate for loss of hearing and avoid being ‘crept up on’
  • look directly at the person when communicating, so they can use a range of cues or other senses to manage hearing loss, such as monitoring facial expressions, body language or lip reading
  • provide important information in formats other than audio, like videos with captions, email, task whiteboard, written job cards or handouts
  • consider the use of instant messaging or email for communication rather than phone use, and text messaging on mobile phones with vibrate alerts rather than voice calls
  • provide access to webcams for those that use sign language to communicate
  • above all, when communicating with people that are hard of hearing or Deaf, always communicate with respect

Hard of Hearing

There are many ways to help someone who is hard of hearing  at work, such as :

  • place them in the middle and towards the front of the room during meetings if hearing is almost the same in both ears, or position them with their ‘better’ ear towards the source of the sound
  • encourage use of hearing aids with Bluetooth link to use with other amplification and notification technology
  • use of captioning and Realtime Captioning
  • amplification systems
  • visual alerts (to supplement auditory alarms) and/or paging devices
  • assistive listening systems (FM Systems)
  • induction loops

Support Services

The Employment Assistance Fund provides financial assistance for work-related modifications, equipment and services to help people with disability to get employment and perform their work as independently and productively as possible.
The Employment Assistance Fund can also provide funding assistance for Deaf employees communicating via Auslan:

  • to obtain interpreters for key training or meeting needs
  • for an employee’s colleague to attend training with a registered training organisation to learn Auslan, to support the Deaf worker at work
  • to provide Deaf Awareness Training for co-workers of a Deaf employee.

Refer to the full guidelines: Employment Assistance Fund to see if you are eligible. Further information on deaf blindness or dual sensory loss can be found through Able Australia’s website.

Related Links

Department of Health – Hearing Services
Independent Living Centre
Deaf Australia
National Relay Service/Video Relay Service
Telstra Disability Equipment Program

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