Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

International Day of Sign Languages: how business can make a difference

A deaf Palestinian student learns how to communicate on the International Day of Sign Languages.

A deaf Palestinian student learns how to communicate on the International Day of Sign Languages. Image: Reuters/Raneen Sawafta

Elisabeth Pipic
Specialist, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice, World Economic Forum Geneva
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  • The International Day of Sign Languages highlights the need for accessible and inclusive workplaces.
  • High-performing organizations are well-placed to leverage technology to assist the hearing-impaired.
  • Flexible working has brought in culture changes that facilitate the use of such technology.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.5 billion people (nearly 20% of the global population) currently live with hearing loss and 430 million of them have disabling hearing loss. Today marks the International Day of Sign Languages, underlining the linguistic identity and cultural diversity of all deaf people and their sign languages globally. There are more than 300 different sign languages being used, and the recognition of this diverse language landscape is an essential aspect of creating inclusive workplaces.

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To protect and support deaf communities, businesses have introduced a number of accessibility measures and inclusion strategies. The use of integrated closed captioning in virtual meetings, for example, has aided employees with hearing disabilities to participate effectively during exchanges. The role of assistive technology therefore plays a pivotal role in facilitating accessibility. We have asked four leaders to provide an outlook on the ways in which technology can be leveraged to improve disability inclusion in the workplace and share examples of how they have made a difference. Here’s what they said.

‘In today’s digital age, there is no equity without accessibility.’

Karyn Twaronite, EY Global Vice Chair – Diversity, Equity and Inclusiveness

In today’s digital age, there is no equity without accessibility. We all need seamless access to digital information to work effectively and efficiently. Without this, people can be left behind.

There are two pieces to this: assistive technology, specialized tools to enable persons with disabilities to do their work; and digital accessibility, the intentional creation of online content so it’s usable by everyone.

High-performing organizations can better equip their people with the tools and information they need to succeed. At EY, the tone is set from the top in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusiveness Statement of our Global Executive, the organization’s highest global governing body, where each member commits “to providing the tools, resources and environment that all EY professionals need to be successful and build meaningful careers”.

Our Disability Support Service offers a streamlined way for EY people with disabilities to get the assistive equipment they need. We’ve also built a global accessibility policy, process and training so that over time, everything EY builds, buys or deploys can be more fully accessible. It is important for all of our professionals to know how to communicate in accessible ways, so we also run awareness campaigns, share tools and resources, and host learning events to better educate the entire workforce. Our EY purpose is to build a better working world. And we know that can only happen, if we help the world work better, for everyone.

Projected number of people with disabling hearing loss worldwide (in millions)
Projected number of people with disabling hearing loss worldwide (in millions). Image: Statista

‘We are privileged to serve people with hearing impairments’

Bader Nasser Al-Kharafi, Vice-Chairman and Group CEO, Zain

We are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which at its core establishes the rapid change to technology, industries, and societal patterns and processes in the 21st century due to increasing interconnectivity and smart automation. This transformation offers societies the opportunity to improve the quality of living for all, and provides tools and solutions to wider portions of the community, becoming a vital agent for greater development and inclusion.

One of our driving missions at Zain is to leverage technology to better serve the communities in which we operate, without discrimination. Providing services to the hearing-impaired, among other groups requiring specialized support, is something we feel privileged to do. Given that there are estimated to be over 70 million individuals with hearing impairments globally, and the use of over 300 different sign languages, over the years Zain has undertaken initiatives across its operations to remove barriers people with hearing impairments may face.

As an example, collectively we have trained more than 300 employees in the different sign languages across all our operations. As a part of the training in Jordan, Zain established an online sign language library empowering employees to learn Jordanian sign language as well as designating a sign language interpreter to be at branches for specific days of the week. Notably, Zain Jordan utilize a digital sign-language avatar for their website, while in Saudi Arabia, Zain is working with the Saudi Sign Language Association to showcase its support of cultivating disability inclusion. In Bahrain, a video call centre was launched to support people with hearing impairments to communicate with doctors in collaboration with Bahrain Health Centers and Bahrain Deaf Society.

‘There is a cultural change emerging with the use of technology’

Lisa Witney, Head of Global Diversity and Inclusion, Deutsche Bank

With the ongoing support of our employee network, dbEnable, Deutsche Bank aims to nurture an inclusive and supportive workplace for people with visible and invisible disabilities. At an operating level, Deutsche Bank continues to provide accessible workplaces and workspaces. Flexible working due to health or a disability has been in place since long before COVID-19. And there is a cultural change emerging with the use of technology in subtitling, sign language, limited use of flash imagery and screen reader-ready formats becoming standard practice to make communications more accessible.

In October 2021, we launched Deutsche Bank’s first Neurodiversity Celebration Month with virtual events to openly discuss the topic, engage with neurodivergent voices, understand what it's like to be neurodivergent and give practical advice on how we can make the workplace more inclusive. The reaction from our people was incredible, with thousands of colleagues engaging with the topic and telling us they have learnt something new. We are in the process of repeating the initiative this year.

We also recognize that this is an imperative for our clients as well as our own employees. Our “Banking on AI for Accessibility” hackathon saw over a dozen teams compete over 24 hours to produce products that could make use of AI capabilities and the power of Google Cloud to improve the accessibility of Deutsche Bank’s products and communication tools. Over 1,200 participants, organized in over 100 teams, across 20 locations across the globe took part, making it the largest ever Deutsche Bank hackathon, the first fully virtual.

'Technology must be customized to the needs of each individual'

Margery Kraus, Founder and Executive Chairman, APCO Worldwide Inc

All too often, employers work to identify accessible technology after hiring an employee with disabilities. It is an employer’s responsibility to have a keen understanding of how to build a truly accessible workplace through both technology and general digital tools that can support neurodiversity needs. Tech companies like Google, Meta, Salesforce, Microsoft and Amazon are leading the charge in implementing accessible technology among their workforces. Some are taking it a step further by implementing learnings from disability employee resource groups to their consumer technology.

Google, for example created the Project Relate app for Android, which has a listening feature that transcribes conversations in real time and a repeat function that repeats what an individual just said for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Technology should be leveraged to build an accessible workforce, but it must be customized to the needs of each individual, which is why it’s key to keep an open line of communication with employees and candidates. Organizations need to explicitly demonstrate their efforts towards disability inclusion and accessible technology right from the very outset of the recruitment and onboarding process to attract and retain diverse talent.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

As organizations select new accessible technology, they must also consider the diverse range of needs of individuals with disabilities; employees with one hand may require a custom keyboard, while an employee with dyslexia may need large text articles reformatted. These customized and intentional accessible technology decisions are the first step in creating a barrier-free workplace.

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