Friday, July 23, 2010

Working with the Deaf

The manager was tasked to train an individual who has been given a new task. This individual is profoundly deaf.

The deaf student had attempted to take an eLearning course on the task. The thought was that he would be able to work the tutorial at his own pace. That, apparently, didn't work. (I haven't seen the tutorial, so I am not certain whether it was an instructional design flaw, lack of 508 compliance or some other issue that is the culprit.)

As a result, the deaf student's managers reached out to my manager for some one-on-one instructor-led training on this new task.

My manager had worried about this session. She asked me to step in and observe once I had completed my own class. I walked in at the 45 minute mark.

It wasn't going well.

As I watched, my manager tried everything in the book to help him understand and perform his new task.
- Screen pointing
- Model and repeat
- Repetition
- Writing and drawing

She would talk slowly and wait for the interpreters to provide translation. She worked very hard to keep her frustration levels down and her tone level (I was behind her, so I couldn't see her face).

No matter what she tried...He just wasn't getting it.

The student used two sign-language interpreters (I've personally never seen that before). The interpreters switched off as the manager delivered the training. At first, the interpreters switched off every 30 minutes, then every 15, then as often as they could convince the other to take over. They cut off the session at 2 hours. The class was only supposed to take one.

The sign language interpreters I've met tend to be incredibly careful with body language and facial expressions. I could tell this was out of the norm. One started displaying the "This guy's a moron" facial expression. The other performed the universal slow breath exhalation of frustration. It appeared that at least one of them had worked with this individual before - and seemed none-too-happy about having to translate for him again.

Something is not right here.

I also got the sincere feeling that I was witnessing the "Willful Stupidity Act." I had seen the "willful stupidity act" before among the hearing population. The willful stupidity act is usually demonstrated by folks who are only interested in their job for the paycheck. They want nothing to do with learning new skills or taking on new responsibilities. No amount of persuasion, motivation or training is going to help this person. If anything, training just gives the individual one more thing to blame his or her "lack of performance" on. The trainer becomes a new scapegoat.

Before the student left, he threw up his hands and complained about how he was expected to do all this work.

We've heard this before.

"You need to have a conversation with your manager."

When everyone had left, my manager turned to me - "I don't think he got a thing out of it."

I didn't think he did either.

We both wondered whether trying to pay attention to the screen AND trying to pay attention to the translator caused the issue. Maybe.

I inquired about any online training he had been exposed to. Maybe he just needed to have something that offers a slower pace and text. Already tried - with resources for questions while he worked through the tutorial.

My manager demonstrated all of the strategies I knew about for working with the hearing impaired, so I couldn't think of any new ideas.

Are there other things we could have tried?


Anonymous said...

What were you trying to teach? Is there a reason it had to be taught verbally? I would guess it's something new, with no books written, otherwise you could throw books at him (and make him read some too). Does the student have a history of learning in any form? If so, can you adopt that form? Or does he simply assume that due to his disability, he can't be fired?

Wendy said...

She was teaching a computer application and report process. Books had already been thrown at this individual. They had essentially tried everything without having to do the in-person, verbal instructor-led training. This was last ditch.

Your last line is the accurate assessment of the situation.

Thanks for your comment.

Marian Casey said...

I saw this post and was upset by it on so many levels. Having trained individuals with and without disabilites, your description of this employee, the training process and behavior of your manager and the sign language translators was appalling on so many levels. The last line of the anonymous comment (stating this individual is somehow protected from termination because of his disability) and your agreement of that comment added insult to injury for individuals with any disability

If your intention in posting this story was in fact to reach out to professionals in the learning and development community for advice on working with individuals with disabilites (which is admirable to some extent despite your unfortunate references to this employee), you did so by insulting individuals with disabilities (or any learning difference) and have contributed to the discrimination of such individuals in the workplace.

One thing to remember in referring to individuals with disabilities or any difference is to use "people first" language - meaning a respectful reference for this article would be, advice on working with employees that are deaf. They are individuals like all of us yet have a disability that impacts how they learn, communicate and take in information.

Here is some advice on training individuals who are deaf or with hearing problems ("Deaf Friendly Workplace" from ORC | Global Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion

When training,
- use demonstration and clear, concise written instrucitons
- provide an outline of the training session
- if captioned films and videos are not available, get scripts from the
manufacturer and provide them for deaf employees in advance
- allow extra time for communication and offer frequent breaks to mitigate
visual fatigue from speechreading and watching the interpreter
- assign someone who is willing to work one-on-one with deaf employees
during the training period
- provide equal access to regular training required for promotions
- consider tailoring training to the specialized needs of deaf employees.

I would visit the OC site and download this guide as well as have your manager and the rest of the staff read their other materials on workforce management. In addition, I would also visit the National Association for the Deaf website at, to access additional information about working with employees that are deaf.

Finally, if in fact your perception of the sign language interpreters state of mind was they felt this employee was a moron is accurate,
I would report them to the Registry for Interpretors for the Deaf at

Please, please consider the feelings of individuals (with disabilities or otherwise and those that love them) in your postings.

Marian Casey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Wendy said...

Marian: Thank you for the references. They are greatly appreciated.

My intent was not to insult the individual or the deaf community. More to point out behaviors I have seen before. I was saddened to see the same behaviors manifest in this instance.

You are correct for calling me out for not putting the situation more elegantly.