What is Audism in the Workplace & How Can You Prevent it?

Published January 17, 2023

Business leaders and their HR counterparts in today’s workplaces need to take more proactive steps to prevent discrimination and promote inclusivity. Many of these professionals have made great strides when it comes to supporting women, LGBT communities and others. However, more effort must go into promoting opportunities for individuals with disabilities, including those who are Deaf or hard of hearing. 
Audism is one problem impacting people with disabilities when they seek employment opportunities. Still, many people aren’t familiar with this type of discrimination, which is directed at those who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Statistics reveal that audism is likely one force damaging these individuals’ employment prospects. 

For instance, people who are Deaf face lower rates of employment than their hearing peers. In fact, employment rates for people who are Deaf are 53.3% compared with 75.8% among individuals who can hear. However, research indicates that people who are Deaf are more likely to be actively looking for work. These numbers suggest that lower employment rates for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing aren’t the result of individual choices to stay out of the workforce.  

In today’s world, where technology offers many simple accommodations, reports of underemployment raise questions about potential biases, prejudices and discrimination. Specifically, workplace audism is likely contributing to lower employment among those who are Deaf.  

As an accessibility leader, Verbit is helping to shed light on and prevent these issues. Verbit and its team offer solutions for companies that that want to create inclusive workplace environments and support their employees with disabilities.  

Deep diving into the term ‘audism’ 

There are many forms that audism can take, from subtle to overt discrimination. In the workplace, audism can have negative impacts on a person’s ability to acquire or maintain a job. It may prevent them from getting promotions or making other career progress.  

In reality, many qualified professionals who are Deaf face challenges when it comes to overcoming other people’s assumptions.  

“When we immediately start categorizing individuals for their disabilities rather than their abilities. we are pressing them we're creating a situation where they're not able to succeed,” explained Scott Ready (CODA), Verbit’s Global Head of Accessibility & Inclusion.  

For employers, avoiding these biases is a legal obligation. Unfortunately, even laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can’t always prevent discrimination against people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. The law can, however, provide a way for people to hold employers accountable. 

How the ADA protects against audism 

The ADA creates certain obligations for employers. Unless a business qualifies for an exemption, it must not discriminate against people with disabilities when it comes to any aspect of their employment. The law also requires employers to offer “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities. An accommodation may include something like a sign language interpreter or captions for live meetings and training videos.  

For people with disabilities, however, it can be challenging to prove that an employer made an illegal employment-related decision. Employers may claim they base these decisions on legal reasons like performance or budget cuts. Parsing through the facts to determine an employer's intentions can be extremely complicated. It’s unlikely that any sophisticated business would say “we’re going with another candidate because we don’t want to provide accommodations.”  

Still, employers should want to support their employees and avoid the negative press and potential financial costs related to an ADA lawsuit. Even in cases that aren’t crystal clear, employers might be involved in subtle behaviors that qualify as audism.  

Oversights and errors that result in audism 

People who are Deaf often experience forms of audism that aren’t overt and that may come from someone with good intentions. These experiences can make for a negative, non-inclusive work environment. Here are a few examples of audism that are destructive, even if they come from a lack of understanding rather than any intent to cause harm. 

Making assumptions about a person’s abilities 

Many people who are Deaf have some ability to hear and can speak. However, they might have different communication preferences. Assuming they can’t communicate or avoiding interactions is rude and displays a bias. Rather than asking if the person can speak or how much they can hear, find out their preferred method of communication.  

Verbit’s Ready explained that “the best way to approach that is by asking questions.” Rather than trying to accommodate based on the perceived impression of what the person needs, ask them because, as Ready puts it, “I can guarantee they best know how to achieve in that environment.” 

By asking questions, companies can learn whether sign language interpreters, lip reading, captioning and other methods are best for the situation. It’s vital that efforts come from both sides rather than placing the burden entirely on the person who is Deaf. 

Leaving people out of jokes or conversations 

People who are Deaf sometimes experience situations where people share a laugh or other connection that leaves them out. When they ask what the joke was, they might hear “it’s not important,” or “I’ll explain later.” These types of statements might not be intended to leave the person out, but they do. The results can be damaging for relationships and workplace cooperation. 

Using insensitive metaphors or expressions 

Words and phrases are often ingrained in language to the point where people don’t think about their origins. However, sometimes the implication can be insulting and discriminatory. It’s best to avoid phrases like “are you deaf?” when aimed at someone who isn’t listening, or “silence is deafening.”  When it comes to talking about disabilities, being respectful is essential.  

Low expectations 

In the education system, low expectations for students with disabilities are a problem that prevents these learners from reaching their potential. In the workplace, it can have the same effect. Although a coworker might think that they’re just avoiding a hassle, this type of behavior may rob that employee of an opportunity to learn new skills or advance in their career. A little creativity and effort can often help circumvent any perceived obstacles.  

Exaggerated praise 

Not only are some manifestations of audism unintentional, some are actually well-intended. Ready, a child of Deaf adults (CODA), said that while growing up, people would often make comments like, “you sign to your parents. It's so beautiful. I just love watching you sign.” While the statement might sound like a compliment, “people can make it so extreme that it becomes uncomfortable.” 

Steps you can take to avoid audism in your workplace 

Avoiding audism in the workplace is the responsibility of all business leaders. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to create a more inclusive environment that respects diverse employees. Here are a few ways to start.  

Make sure employees have the right training 

It’s the employers’ responsibility to prevent workplace discrimination. One of the best ways to do that is to offer formal training. Quality training will make employees think about issues related to discrimination, including some of the subtle behaviors they might not have considered. Additionally, having the training in the first place shows that the company cares about creating a welcoming environment and won’t tolerate discriminatory behaviors. In the event of a lawsuit, showing that the company required training will be important evidence. Taking the effort to train employees shows that an employee's wrongful actions weren’t sanctioned by the business. 

Build an inclusive culture 

Creating an inclusive workplace culture requires a top-down approach. With buy-in from leaders, including those in the C-suite, employees will understand that accessibility and inclusivity are valued priorities. Establishing groups that give a collective voice to employees with disabilities can also help ensure that those individuals feel supported. 

Facilitate open communication 

One of the requirements of the ADA is that employers work with employees to find the right accommodations. It’s often the case that creativity will solve any issues rather than costly equipment or accommodations. Finding the right way to create an environment where an employee who is Deaf can thrive won’t be possible without effective communication with that employee. Some businesses empower lower-level managers to approve accommodations as this can make the process faster and remove red tape that might make employees feel uncomfortable when they need support.  

Work with professional accessibility partners 

Accessibility is a complex subject that impacts physical and virtual workplace environments. Knowledgeable accessibility partners, like Verbit, are in the best position to offer solutions that meet the needs of employees with disabilities. Verbit partners with businesses to provide expert support for their workplace accessibility needs. For instance, with Verbit, businesses can provide live captioning for Zoom meetings, webinars and other events to make them accessible for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing. 

If you’re seeking guidance to help make your workplace more accessible for team members who are Deaf or hard of hearing, reach out. Visit Verbit’s site to learn more about ways that your business can support people with disabilities and build a more inclusive brand.  


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