Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more


  • Comment
Deaf and hearing people working together in statutory organisations ...
Deaf and hearing people working together in statutory organisations

April 1998 - Ref 428

Deaf people who use British Sign Language (BSL) are increasingly being employed as service providers. In some specialist schools, hospitals and social services, the professional team is now one in which both deaf and hearing colleagues work together. The challenges in creating such co-operation are immense as two languages and two cultures enter the workplace. An in-depth study of three such deaf/hearing professional teams working with deaf clients found:

-Nearly 90 per cent of deaf staff were employed in unqualified grade posts, in comparison with only 15 per cent of hearing staff.

-In the majority of cases deaf staff could communicate more effectively with deaf service users than their hearing colleagues. This tension between low occupational status and high value communication skills posed crucial challenges to traditional professional roles.

-Deaf/hearing co-operative working was best achieved when: unqualified deaf staff were provided with a clearly structured training; were perceived to be employed not just because they were deaf, but because they were deaf and possessed recognised competencies; and where deaf staff (qualified or unqualified) were represented in management forums.

-For hearing people a signing environment is about having to change themselves by doing their job in another language. It is an environment that can easily damage professional confidence.

-From deaf staff's perspective, hearing people's willingness to sign was more crucial than a high level of fluency. From hearing staff's perspective, consistent BSL training, prioritised by management, was he most important factor.

-The researchers conclude that an effective signing environment in which hearing people do not talk in the presence of deaf people is fundamental to good deaf/hearing working practice. For deaf people a signing environment essentially enables them to be themselves. It is the key to full professional involvement, fosters confidence, enables real relationships with hearing colleagues, and demonstrates respect.

Occupational status of deaf staff

Nearly 90 per cent of the deaf staff in the teams studied were employed at unqualified grade - typically nursing assistants or general assistants. There were three reasons for this distribution of staff at the lowest end of the organisational hierarchy and consequently in low-paid jobs:

-Educational history: it is common for many deaf people to experience an education system that does not necessarily match their own linguistic needs and to leave school with few qualifications. Consequently, few are able to match the academic entry requirements for professional studies.

-Service response: it is only recently that services have begun to employ deaf staff, therefore, the chances of gaining relevant work experience have been very limited.

-Professional bars to qualification: in the case of the nursing profession, deaf people who use British Sign Language rather than spoken English cannot become qualified nurses.

Consequently, while all the organisations who took part in this study employed a substantial number of deaf people (ranging between 24 and 39 per cent of the staff complement), the basic fact remained that deaf staff did not match the occupational distribution of their hearing colleagues in terms of influence and power:

'All the most powerful people in this service are hearing ... if I look around, hearing people have the most powerful jobs, with one exception ... it's true a lot of deaf people work here, but at what level do they work? They work at the lowest, in the posts held in the lowest esteem ... take for example in the nursing team here, all the qualified nurses are hearing and all the care assistants are deaf.' (Deaf Social Worker)

'... we are still only employing about 30 per cent [deaf staff] ... it's not enough because the main thing that is missing is deaf people in powerful positions, that's the essence of it - the qualified staff are almost all hearing - the unqualified staff are, bar virtually one - deaf. ' (Hearing Consultant Psychiatrist)

Being qualified

Although the majority of deaf staff worked in unqualified grade posts, in most cases they could communicate better in sign language with deaf service users than their hearing colleagues. In addition, they were valued for their deaf cultural understanding. These skills were perceived by deaf and hearing colleagues alike as essential in order for the teams to function. However, this tension between the low occupational status and the high value skills of deaf staff, created many potential conflicts.

The professional qualifications of hearing staff no longer assured them of the competency to do their job, because of communication difficulties. Yet for unqualified deaf staff there were no such problems. In these circumstances qualified hearing staff could easily feel threatened and undermined. On the other hand, although deaf staff could easily understand deaf service users, they did not routinely have the professional training and knowledge to exploit that ability. Consequently, deaf staff could easily feel frustrated by the limitations of their own role (as unqualified). They could also feel that they were challenging the role of qualified, but not necessarily linguistically competent, hearing colleagues.

How teams responded to this complex situation determined the quality of the deaf/hearing working practice that resulted. In some cases, hearing staff responded by placing tight boundaries around the qualified and unqualified roles. This approach tended to result in the under-use of deaf staff's skills as they could not participate in some activities where their language/cultural skills could be put to good use. In some cases, distinctions between qualified and unqualified staff were largely ignored and replaced by a notion of equally valuable deaf and hearing skills. This approach tended to cover up real differences in responsibility between colleagues and did not address the key issue of power relations in the team. The most successful approach was to provide a comprehensive training for unqualified deaf staff that accredited specific professional skills. In this way all staff (be they deaf or hearing) could be distinguished in terms of competency rather than qualification; deaf staff were valued not just because they were deaf but because they were deaf and possessed relevant professional expertise; and power relations were made open to debate.

The signing environment

With a substantial proportion of deaf staff, effective communication within the team was a key issue. In all the teams there was a basic understanding that if the working environment was to be a communicative one for deaf staff, then it needed to be a signing environment. For deaf staff, transactions in spoken language would, for the most part, be inaccessible or inexact. The answer was for hearing staff always to sign in the presence of deaf colleagues.

However, teams struggled with the reality of creating a signing environment in which deaf and hearing staff interacted well. Crucially the struggles faced by hearing and by deaf staff were not the same. Furthermore, the signing environment did not hold the same significance for deaf and for hearing staff.

Deaf meanings/deaf struggles

For deaf staff the signing environment was primarily important because it meant that they could be themselves and do their job. The associated struggles were essentially person centred ones.

Being involved

If everybody signed then deaf staff could participate in the normal flow of both work-related and informal conversation. More fundamentally, hearing staff signing also signified that deaf staff were respected and their contribution valued. Hearing staff not bothering to sign could feel like hearing staff not bothering with them:

'If I'm in a room for handover, I should know everything [that goes on] as much as the people who are speaking do. I find sometimes I'm ignored ... I'm disappointed, I am really disappointed because I feel they are not showing respect and valuing sign language, they are not helping me to understand. From my perspective it's like they are saying 'fuck it, let's carry on talking and not bother'. By talking they are pushing me away and so I feel like I'm lower class.' (Deaf Nursing Assistant)

Feeling of well-being

When there was a strong signing environment, it positively affected deaf staff's levels of confidence in the workplace and belief they could do their job. When the signing environment broke down, then feelings of anxiety, insecurity and inability to do the job were more likely.

'It's interesting in the staff room. There's a problem because sometimes the teachers are talking to each other, however, when I look at them, they then say 'oh I have to sign this now.' But I think they don't want deaf staff to know what they are talking about ... they tell me in sign what they are saying but that doesn't solve the problem because I don't think they tell me fully what they've been talking about, but then again I'm not really sure ... I can openly ask them about this and discuss it with them, I don't mind doing that, but still I can't judge if the problem is real, or if perhaps there isn't a problem at all.' (Deaf General Assistant)

Making relationships

When hearing people consistently signed about everything, then social relationships could develop. It was possible to share the trivia of everyday life and discover the ways in which deaf and hearing colleagues were similar.

Fulfilling professional roles

A signing environment was vital because it ensured that information deaf staff needed to fulfil their professional duties was accessible to them. Most problems arose in relation to informal information, the sort that just gets passed around, or quickly mentioned between individuals. Interactions like these were very often not signed by hearing people. Consequently, deaf staff often missed out on information that could, for example, leave them turning up at the wrong place at the wrong time, or not being updated on a service user with whom they were working.

So from the deaf perspective, the key issue in creating a good signing environment was hearing people's willingness to try to sign, rather than any particularly high level of fluency. That willingness demonstrated the respect, inclusion, commitment and emphasis on relationships that were at the heart of why a signing environment was significant for deaf staff. If the willingness was apparent, deaf staff were prepared to make many accommodations to their language to help hearing staff understand (e.g. slowing down, repeating, rephrasing) and to support hearing staff wanting to improve their signing.

Hearing meanings/hearing struggles

For hearing staff the key significance of a signing environment was that it necessitated change - they had to do their job in another language. The challenges they identified were all related to language use.

Linguistic competence

The range of difficulties expressed were typical of those encountered in second language use: restricted vocabulary, grammatical mistakes and competence only within restricted contexts:

'My signing is not of the level that I would want it to be, to have a good conversation with people ... not outside the school context. I am fairly restricted.' (Hearing General Assistant)

Consequently, most people had experiences of feeling profoundly inadequate, frustrated and embarrassed in working situations in which they had not quite understood.


Confidence was identified as both essential and fragile. If people were confident, they would have a go at signing regardless of whether they perceived themselves to be fluent or not, and they were not afraid about making mistakes. Importantly, they believed their deaf colleagues would be supportive, not critical of their efforts. Without confidence, they found it more difficult to interact with their deaf colleagues and suspected they were harshly judged by them.

'Everybody agrees it [the signing policy] is a good idea. Even the people who don't like it, they agree ... the basis is good. But what happens in practice is that ... people don't feel confident enough signing in front of somebody who can throw their arms around like there is no tomorrow. ' (Hearing Nurse)

Relentlessness of signing

For many hearing staff the problem was not an unwillingness to sign, but rather the condition of having to do so all the time in the presence of deaf colleagues. Many factors intervened - forgetting, being tired, an emergency situation. For some people it was also very difficult to sign at the times they associated with relaxation from the pressures of the job - such as break times in school. These were times when it was considered important to 'switch off' and 'be yourself'. The trouble was that having to sign meant just the opposite.

So from the hearing perspective, in which language challenges were paramount and the underlying experience was one of change, the standard to which they signed was the key. If a high level of fluency was achieved, it was felt this would ensure greater confidence and less pressure. Consequently, the prioritising of sign language training by management, including time released from duties to learn, was considered vital. A non-critical attitude from deaf colleagues - in which linguistic inadequacies were not presumed to imply professional inadequacies - was also considered essential.


These findings demonstrate key principles in building good deaf/hearing working practice: a willingness to question and reform traditional role boundaries; making explicit and debating the basis of power in the team; addressing the differences in meanings and struggles in building a signing environment; the prioritising of training at all levels for all staff.

About the study

The project was carried out between early 1996 and late 1997 by two researchers (one deaf and one hearing) from the Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol. Three organisations took part: two specialist psychiatric services for deaf people, and a school for deaf children. A total of forty-one staff were interviewed of whom twenty were deaf. Interviews with deaf people were carried out by the deaf researcher in British Sign Language. Data were also collected through observations and focus groups.

How to get further information

For further information, contact Alys Young at the Department of Social Work, University of Salford, Allerton Building, Frederick Road, Salford. M6 6PU. Tel: 0161 2952372, Textphone: 0161 295 2481, Fax: 0161 295 2378. A full report, Looking on: Deaf people and the organisation of services by Alys Young, Jennifer Ackerman and Jim Kyle, is published by The Policy Press in association with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. (ISBN 1 86134 092 3, price£11.95).

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.