Building inclusive communities for hearing impaired people

Last updated


In a world that can rely on hearing to navigate through the community and communicate with others, hearing impaired people may face barriers with accessibility and inclusivity within their homes, public spaces, and workplaces.

Key points:

  • No two hearing impaired people are the same and deafness can be a spectrum
  • Just because something has been made accessible to a hearing impaired person, doesn’t mean it is inclusive
  • There are a range of ways that people, workplaces and communities can build inclusivity for hearing impaired people.

It is vital that hearing impaired people are able to communicate and interact with people and the world around them in their preferred way.

This preference can differ from person to person, and it is important that someone with a hearing impairment is supported to do so and included within their communities.

So how can we build more inclusive communities for hearing impaired people?

Expression Australia’s Sherrie Beaver, Project Lead of Information, Linkages and Capacity Building (ILC), and Kim Kavanagh, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, provide their advice and tips on improving inclusivity for hearing impaired people.

Deafness is a spectrum

Ms Beaver explains that organisations and the wider public need to understand that hearing impaired people don’t communicate in the same way and that “deafness can be a spectrum”.

Not all deaf or hard of hearing people will communicate through Auslan, preferences can differ from person to person.

“Some sign. Some speak. Some are bilingual in both Auslan and English. It’s largely based on their personal choices and comfort,” said Ms Beaver.

“If you are doing a project or program where deaf and hard of hearing people will be involved, consider including them in the development and co-design process so they can ensure deaf and hard of hearing people are well represented.

“An ally ensures deaf and hard of hearing people are a forethought, not an afterthought.”

To ensure hearing impaired people are included within a variety of settings, they need to be provided with equal opportunities and that involves discussing with the person what is the best option for them.

Ms Beaver adds that hearing impaired people can be experts in the best ways to communicate because of their lived experiences.

Accessibility and inclusion are not the same

Ms Kavanagh says it is important people understand the difference between accessibility inclusion because they are not the same thing.

If you are trying to assist a hard of hearing person to be included in a gathering, public setting or workplace, allowing them access to the setting doesn’t mean they are necessarily included.

You can deliver accessibility to a person who is hearing impaired by providing an Auslan interpreter, but it is not inclusive if no one interacts with them.

Ms Kavanagh explains that there are common misconceptions about hearing impaired people that may cause breakdowns in interactions. For example, people may believe that people that are deaf may also have other disabilities or be “dumb”.

“We may be deaf but we are not dumb. We use a different and intelligent form of communication and many of us lead successful lives,” says Ms Kavanagh.

Creating more inclusive communities

Ms Beaver and Ms Kavanagh provide a range of ways to improve inclusion among communities and workplaces.

It is vital that people make the effort to include hearing impaired people in all aspects of life, as they are “human first and foremost”.

  • Provide accessibility, but follow through with inclusivity

Accessibility is still important in terms of providing a hearing impaired person with the ability to be involved in an activity, work or social gathering.

For instance, Ms Kavanagh recommends the use of Auslan interpreters, Hearing Loops, or captioning to assist a person with a hearing impairment, however, it is important to remember that these options aren’t always the answer.

Communication should be tailored towards the wishes and needs of the person with a hearing impairment.

It’s also important to provide a clear line of sight and stand in good lighting when speaking or signing to a person who is hearing impaired.

  • Attitude and creativity

Ms Kavanagh encourages people to get creative and to have a positive attitude when interacting and engaging with hearing impaired people.

You don’t need to know how to sign or know Auslan to be able to communicate with someone.

She says you just need to have a positive attitude and be willing to try other methods.

“Be open to adaptation. This can go a long way,” says Ms Kavanagh.

Being patient with a hearing impaired person and trying to communicate through writing or visuals, like pictures or pointing at items, can make a difference.

  • Speak to the person, not the interpreter

Suggest changing to: If an interpreter or relay officer is used to communicate it is important that you talk directly to the hearing impaired person and make eye contact with them.

You should also not refer to them in the third person, but converse as if there is no interpreter or relay officer there at all. This allows for the hearing impaired person to be fully included within the conversation you are having with them.

Lastly, Ms Kavanagh says it is important that people recognise that not all hearing impaired people are the same.

“We may share some commonalities such as hearing loss, Auslan, shared experiences with some barriers, but we are all individuals, independent in our thinking and more,” adds Ms Kavanagh.

  • Contribute to systemic change

Small to large changes in the system can make a big difference in the lives of hearing impaired people.

Encouraging workplaces, Governments and the community to make changes to benefit those who are hearing impaired can lead to a more inclusive society.

Some businesses have become creative in providing inclusive ways to meet the needs of diverse clients. For example, the fast food restaurant Mcdonald’s has visual food options available on touch screen menus – making ordering food easy and simple for everyone.

Addressing the equity between people who can hear and those with impairments can make a difference in the lives of those who currently face everyday barriers.

  • Organise deaf awareness training or basic Auslan training in the workplace

Education can be a big component of building more inclusive societies for people with hearing impairments.

This could be through awareness training around deaf and hard of hearing people, or even basic courses in Auslan.

Training and education can be particularly important in workplace settings to ensure hearing impaired people are not discriminated against and are also able to communicate and bond with their coworkers.

In what ways do you make gatherings, public settings or workplaces inclusive for hearing impaired people? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Hearing impairments
What is Hearing Augmentation and where is it used?
Planes, trains and automobiles – your transport options