Deaf awareness: how can we implement best practice?

By Emma Taylor - November 30, 2022

As a chartered engineer with 30 years' experience across three sectors, I’m a lifelong learner, always looking for opportunities to educate myself and to learn from others around me. So when the Royal Academy of Engineering funded a three-year teaching Visiting Professorship at Cranfield’s Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre( DARTeC), under the supervision of Professor Graham Braithwaite, I was thrilled. As someone who started her engineering career with an undergraduate sponsorship with British Aerospace at their Filton site, listening to the sounds of the runway from the site canteen, what better university to be hosted at?

Over the next three years, I’ll be supporting teaching innovation across five of Cranfield’s well-known aerospace MSc courses. As someone with a risk, safety and cybersecurity background, using DARTeC’s digital research backbone, across all aspects of aviation operations and optimisation, combined with Cranfield’s international research programme, means that the teaching scenarios will be on the cutting edge of engineering. 

But people are at the heart of all engineering and, time after time, accident case studies have shown that when people’s inputs are not heard or incorporated, then the potential for near misses and accidents can increase. For me as an engineer, this means all people, all voices, all inputs must be heard, and we should all seek to find and remove barriers where we find them.

The Royal Academy of Engineering places equality, diversity and inclusion at the heart of its activities and I, as a long standing mentor and mentee, a woman engineer, and a RAEng VP, welcome the personal responsibility to see what I can do to move the dial. Seeing the challenges that a deaf mentee faced during the pandemic, and learning from profoundly deaf colleagues about their challenges, I incorporated deaf awareness into my teaching proposal with the goal of disseminating and implementing good practice wherever I could. 

On 9 November 2022 at DARTeC, with almost 90 people registered from across the Department of Engineering, I set out some thoughts, priorities, and areas for improvement, for myself and others in a talk called "Implementing deaf awareness principles in engineering: every little helps".

Encouraging others in their feedback, as part of the talk’s continuing professional development (CPD) reflective practice, in this blog I want to showcase some of the thoughtful and effective suggestions that the audience sent in. I’ve learnt a lot from them, and want to share with the community. My ultimate aim remains that someone can take part in an activity, be profoundly deaf and be able to participate fully, without having to ask for additional support. This is a bold goal, and I’ve got a way to go. 

1. Things can be done now, and new habits can be formed

People recognised that they could take action now, and small changes could have a big impact, some setting themselves a goal to establish "helpful new habits". 

“Many recommendations such as using appropriate lighting and speaking clearly require minimal effort in the day-to-day practice from my end, but they are of utmost significance and are fundamental for communication with deaf people”.

“In future, I will always put effort into adapting my presence and presentation style to make it easier for deaf people to follow without barriers”.

From the replies I received, there was a clear realisation of the challenges faced, and a commitment to action. People looked around, at conferences, church services and multimedia streaming, and saw them in a new light, finding unconscious barriers to deaf awareness.

 2. Technology is there, but is it always effective? Check it, test it and change it if needed

A number of people looked with fresh eyes at the technology around them, some recognising that features could be adapted. Others brought out their problem-solving engineering side.

“I recently discovered that the loop system installed at our church was not functioning correctly because a hearing aid user said he couldn’t hear, but he wasn’t sure if it was him or the system. I realised that I had no way of working out if the system was functioning… I carried out some fault finding proving the loop was intact and of the correct resistance, proving the inputs to the amplifier were good, finding fault with the amplifier. We purchased a new amplifier; I fitted it and I was able to test the system”. 

This was only one of the examples provided, others made the point that YouTube closed captions could be manually corrected and others highlighted battery power and bandwidth limitations that could impact the effective use of technology solutions. 

3. Being deaf aware changes how you see communication around you

People were thoughtful and reflected carefully on the need to understand people’s individual needs, and that it made sense to learn about best practice (e.g. via the Royal National Institute for the Deaf).

“It’s more than likely that anyone with a disability of any form, would prefer to keep it to themselves and asking could cause offence or awkwardness”.

 "I think conference organisers may need to rethink how they setup and broadcast events, to make them more inclusive”.

There is a lot more that can be included but the word limit on this blog has been reached!

In a closing message one of my deaf mentors wanted me to pass on that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and not to underestimate the impact you can make as a deaf ally. Paraphrasing their words, they said that every time someone took the time to see the world from their perspective and took action, it had an outsized impact on their morale. Day-to-day life can be hard for someone who is hard of hearing, and every little truly does help.

Thank you to all who came to the talk, participated in the discussion, and to those who took part in the continuing professional development (CPD) reflective practice exercise. 

Whether you work in accident investigation, or in education, ensuring that all voices are heard and valued is an integral part of helping both people and teams to achieve their goals. By learning more and working to implement the principles of deaf awareness, we can help work towards ensuring a safe, reliable and secure transport system for all. Thank you for reading.