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Bonding through sign language

  • The workplace can be a tough area to manoeuvre and is even more difficult for differently-abled people
  • While company policies may always boast of an inclusive work environment, it is usually the employees who make or break the feeling of acceptance for some

The EY Chennai team learnt sign language to communicate better with colleagues who are speech and hearing impaired.
The EY Chennai team learnt sign language to communicate better with colleagues who are speech and hearing impaired.

When Johnson V. walked into a restaurant in Chennai, he was quick to realize that his server was speech and hearing impaired. Johnson started signing to him to place the order. While the server was touched, Johnson was finally able to find more meaning to his informal sign language lessons at work.

Sign language lessons do not usually get included in any company’s learning and development programme. But for EY’s Chennai office, it became a necessity. Thirteen people spread across three office teams have speech impairment. While their technical knowledge was up to date, they were facing difficulty when communicating with colleagues.

“When I joined two-and-a-half-years ago, my team leader suggested I pick up some sign language to make it easier to communicate. At the beginning a lot of things seemed difficult, especially since there wasn’t any standardization in the sign languages they were using—sometimes they were using signs used in the US, sometimes those from India," says Johnson, an assistant manager in the team. The 28-year-old is now also part of the company’s Purple Champion programme, launched in November 2017, which aims to increase disability confidence at EY. Any employee can sign up to be a purple champion, after which they are provided with training and encouraged to inspire change in the culture and reinforce positive inclusive behaviour.

“We have a longstanding commitment towards advancing disability confidence and have made considerable progress toward attracting and developing people with different abilities. Purple champions are individuals who are supportive advocates for our EY people with disabilities. They help to create a safe and inclusive environment and support employees through their words and behaviour," says Sandeep Kohli, partner and talent leader, EY India.

Learning starts from home

The challenges that Johnson and team faced, however, eased out after a bit as they found a way to communicate with common signs. While the teaching was mostly informal, they were encouraged to practice in office, even in daily life.

“We noticed that it wasn’t just communication. This was hampering their confidence level as well. They have the technical knowledge and could grasp everything, but would take longer to explain the exact scenario. It has become much smoother now," adds Ajaiprakash J., 26, an assistant manager at EY.

The team also organized communication training for the colleagues with speech disability when they realized that while they could do literal translations, it was difficult for them to communicate smoothly. “In any group discussion or ideation, people would be speaking but they would sit idle. We even built a speech-to-text application for them in 2017, and now they make more effort to participate in meetings," adds Johnson.

How technology helps

Sometimes just the formal learning cannot be enough. Therefore, the team tried to make learning fun by enrolling them for courses on Udemy (an online learning platform), and downloading games from mobile Play Store.

All of this was meant to improve their vocabulary, decrease grammatical errors and, in turn, make communication easier for them.

“While mostly we talk about our projects and work, they know that we are here in case they want to speak to us about anything. We often discuss within us (purple champions) what else we can do to make their experience better and easier, and that helps because we are all learning through the process," says Ajaiprakash.

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