Employing disabled interns: Making communications accessible.
Most organisations rely on successful communications involving:
- Employee, or prospective employee, colleagues and employer;
- The organisation and the people who want to use its services.
There are over 11 million disabled people in the UK, of whom 2.2 million have an impairment which has an impact on communication. It is therefore likely that your organisation has already thought through how to communicate with its public in ways that reach everyone who can benefit from what your organisation has to offer.
While this guidance is about communications involving interns, it is also more generally about how people communicate, and how that can be more, or less, accessible to everyone. After all, an intern whose impairment has no impact on communication may be interacting with an employer, colleague or service user whose impairment does have such an impact.
What are the ways you and your employees currently communicate?
- Send emails;
- Share web-links or web-sites;
- Send written notes;
- Use a notice-board;
- Talk face-to-face, one-to-one or in meetings or other group settings;
- Use body language and facial expression.
What can make these ways accessible to all, or inaccessible to some?
The reliance on hearing or vision in common workplace ways of communicating, risks excluding those whose impairments impact on these senses. But exclusion is not inevitable, and its avoidance does not mean abandoning customary ways of communicating.
Electronic communications can be inaccessible to some blind or partially sighted users. However, assistive technology can often correct this. Interns who gained their degree or qualification as blind or partially sighted students are likely to be familiar with what technology is needed. This might include screen-reading software, such as Jaws, which can read out much of what is on the screen. For blind people who use and prefer Braille, a refreshable Braille display can be added to a PC, allowing the user to read what is on the screen in continuously changing Braille.
Web-sites or emails sometimes incorporate visual displays, such as diagrams or pictures, adding colour or interest, but also risking the loss of important information conveyed in an image. Simply captioning the image with words that explain its presence can, however, restore the information you intended to convey by using the image, without loss of the colourful addition. Where images ‘only’ have an aesthetic purpose, then there may be little point in captioning at all. You will know which images carry information and therefore need captioning.
If you are creating your own web-site, then you can build in accessibility features, such as allowing readers to change colours, fonts and font sizes to meet their individual requirements. Adding text-to-speech capability, such as Browse-Aloud, opens up additional flexibility for readers.
Printed communications are accessible to many partially sighted people, but can be accessible to even more if they are in a good, clear ‘sans serif’ font, such as Arial, and in point 14 font size or larger. Compare:
“Arial is a good, clear font.”
“Freestyle script is not a good clear font.”
But if your communication is intended for an audience including someone who has limited or no useful reading vision, then you need to re-think your method of communication. For example, the office night out announced on the notice board could be advertised by email as well, or announced at the staff meeting. You should ask disabled employees what methods are best, and thereafter make sure to use them.
The Scottish Accessible Information Forum provides helpful guidance on making electronic and printed information more accessible.
Work place circumstances as well as individuals’ preferences influence the choice of alternative communication where the phone is clearly inappropriate. Type-talk and Text-direct can be accessed using a text-telephone where phoning really is a better option than emailing a deaf colleague.
Face-to-face meetings which include people whose impairments impact on communications generally do need some forethought and consultation with those you are trying not to exclude.
Deaf participants might lip-read. This is greatly aided by:
- Ensuring that lips are visible – in good light, not covered by hands, facing the person trying to lip-read;
- Attending to seating arrangements. A horseshoe arrangement is often best, where the faces of speakers are visible to everyone else. If you have to use rows of seats facing the front, then make sure that the speaker repeats any comments from the audience;
- Ensuring that someone lip-reading knows the context of the discussion in advance, perhaps giving a written agenda or other indication of what’s to be discussed;
- Making sure that only one person speaks at a time. If a deaf participant consents, then you might lay down this ground rule at the start, and also ask everyone to face the person lip-reading when they speak;
- Keeping background noise down.
People who use sign language might need an interpreter for at least part of the working week, or in some work settings. The Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (SASLI) can help with booking. It’s important to make sure that anyone using a communication support worker – and this might include people who have a speech impairment – is given the equal opportunity to contribute to the discussion or meeting as well as to ‘receive’ information and input from other people.
If you distribute written materials, such as agenda or Power-point slides, in advance, you allow people to print in a format that best suits them. This also gives everyone an opportunity to think about the matter in hand before they meet. Reading out the content of Power-point slides enables deaf people using an interpreter to have the content communicated via the interpreter, and blind people can access the content too.
It is easy to forget how much is communicated by gesture, facial expression or body language, visual communication that can be useful – or not. The more explicit and direct communication is, the less likely such communication is to exclude.
There seems so much to know about alternative equipment and methods. Where can I get help?
You and your colleagues share an active interest in making sure that workplace communications are effective. Where there is a general atmosphere of mutual concern and shared interest, you are likely to learn from colleagues themselves whether you are ‘getting it right’ and if not, what can be done to improve things. Most disabled people are very familiar with what works best, whether this is equipment, support from others or some combination of arrangements.
A further point is that effective communication is not exclusively about methods and equipment. It may also need some attention to the content of communications. While the method of email might be generally accessible, a particular email communication can fail if the message is over-complex or unclearly expressed in some other way. Most of us have some experience of sending or receiving an email which has inadvertently caused others or ourselves needless distress, perhaps through unfortunate use of language, or by conveying unrealistic expectations. For some people, perhaps including disabled people whose impairments impact on mental health, such communications can be additionally distressing.
Is there any financial help for employers making reasonable adjustments that make communications accessible?
If an adjustment is ‘reasonable’ then the employer has to pay for it. However, the Government Access to Work Scheme can help give advice and support to disabled people, and can also help with extra costs that would not be reasonable for an employers or prospective employer to pay.
For example, Access to Work might pay towards the cost of getting to work if the disabled person cannot use public transport, or for assistance with communication at job interviews.
A person may be able to get advice and support from Access to Work if they are:
- in a paid job, or
- unemployed and about to start a job, or
- unemployed and about to start a Work Trial, or
- self-employed; and
- their disability or health condition stops them from being able to do parts of their job.
Further Resources and Information:
Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters http://www.sasli.co.uk/
Further information on contacting Deaf people by telephone can be obtained at http://www.textrelay.org/
Information on Dyslexia, for Employers is available at http://www.dyslexiascotland.org.uk/employer
For further details about the Access to Work Scheme in Scotland
For Information, support, guidance or advice, on any matter concerning the employment of disabled interns, please Contact Us
 See Inclusion Scotland’s Employing Disabled Interns: Making Reasonable Adjustments