Now it might not come as a surprise to an employer that any medical condition which impairs an individual’s ability to carry out their day to day tasks for anything more than the foreseeable 12 month period, is more than likely to be classified under the Equality Act, 2010 as a disability. What this means for an employer, is that you are required to make reasonable adjustments to enable such an employee to remain in gainful employment for as long as they are able to carry out their roles and responsibilities under the contract of employment that they have signed up for. In simple terms this may mean that a an employee who has had major leg surgery which impairs mobility for roughly 12 months or more cannot work as a warehouse staff operating a fork lift truck but they might be able to work in the warehouse office managing stock levels. Of course this is an oversimplified example, especially in the absence of an Occupational Health assessment. But in a nutshell what is reasonable for one organisation may not necessarily be the case for another. And this largely depends on the size and turnover of your business, and the operational demands.
With this background of how the Equality Act, 2010 aims to enable staff who are disabled, it is quite obvious that pandemic or not, depending on the severity and level of impairment, it would be prudent and good practice for an employer to make reasonable adjustments for Jo. This must ideally be done from day 1 of employment, including revisiting your recruitment processes. Given the context of the pandemic, staff who are hearing impaired have had a new challenge thrust upon them – the lack of ability to lip read due to the requirement to wear masks. As an employer, in this context, it means two things:
- making reasonable adjustments for your staff who are protected under the Equality Act, 2010
- educating staff and other stakeholders to understand and engage with an inclusive culture. In simple terms this means educating them about how to interact with a colleague who is hearing impaired.
Following are some adjustments an Employer could consider:
- Simple steps include not wearing a face covering when speaking with Jo, who relies heavily on lip reading as a mode of communication – refer to this link to understand more Face coverings: when to wear one, exemptions, and how to make your own – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk). This includes shops which are allowed to lower their masks for Jo, given his/her specific needs to be able to communicate.
- Of course you will want to invest in specific signs and alternative modes of communication to notify visitors to your premises or anyone who rings your office, that they are expected to be tolerant of Jo’s specific hearing needs. Communicating this upfront is a small but very effective step in calming the anxieties of a staff member with hearing impairment and setting your expectations as a business from all your stakeholders towards meeting the needs of your staff.
- Ensure that when Jo is on a video conference, the people who are on the call with Jo do not have a source of light behind them, because this again prevents Jo from lip reading and thereby difficulty grasping what is being said. Whilst speaking with Jo, individuals must look directly at him/her, not cover your faces or look down.
- Minimise any background noise either in person or on video calls when chatting with Jo.
- Anyone speaking to Jo must not shout. Instead they must speak at a normal pitch. Individuals who are deaf cannot precisely sense where sounds are coming from, and will tend to look all around if someone shouts their name, for instance.
- Whilst on the phone, ensure no face covering is used, and avoid speaking too fast. It takes Jo longer to work out what is being said and hence speaking at a steady pace ensures everything is understood.
- If possible, invest in a loop system which enables Jo to hear better since it can transmit audio signals directly into the hearing aid, and can help reduce background noise. Portable loop systems are inexpensive and ‘Access To Work’ can recommend many such useful tools.
- Lastly, always communicate openly with Jo and ask what additional assistance would be helpful.
Remember that besides the legal obligations for an Employer, how you treat and make adjustments for Jo will go a long way in enhancing your brand as an Employer. Employees don’t necessarily remain with an employer for the hefty pay cheque but are always grateful for ones that take care of their needs, outside of a pay cheque. With free testing for staff now available to businesses employing less than 50 staff, and the vaccination programme well underway for all, it should be less daunting than ever before to make some of these adjustments, if that means staff like Jo can continue to enjoy communicating with people, similar to everyone else, despite the restrictions placed upon all of us by the pandemic.