Workplace Barriers Experienced By Deaf Employees In Saudi Arabia


Work has been viewed as essential to inclusion in our life, not only necessary for economic survival but also influential in meeting a myriad of social needs. Employment plays a vital role in life as it enables social inclusion and provides the financial resources necessary for well-being. This, of course, is as true for deaf people as for others. However, disabled people frequently encounter barriers to exercising their right to work. Studies have shown that barriers to disabled people while seeking and finding work include discrimination by employers and co-workers. Deaf people encounter difficulties gaining employment and advancing their careers due to barriers in the workplace environment and societal attitudes and discrimination. This study focuses on the barriers and difficulties experienced by deaf employees in Saudi Arabia. A lack of support and understanding of hearing impairment could exclude deaf people and cause them to miss out on job opportunities and promotions. This study presents the different types of barriers identified in the statements by the participants. While communication difficulties posed a major barrier for deaf employees, other barriers included: (1) socialization challenges; (2) physical and structural barriers; (3) accommodations; and (4) attitudinal barriers involving co-workers and employers.

Socialization Barriers

It is important to note that communication was the most prominent barrier faced by deaf people. An overwhelming theme about barriers was problems communicating effectively. In particular, deaf employees could not communicate by signing if they worked in an environment where no one understood sign language. Deaf workers reported feeling isolated and lonely in the workplace and experiencing exclusion from the ‘office chatter’ and social interactions during lunch breaks and informal conversations. These situations typically resulted in the need to pass handwritten notes and use cell phones and computers to type responses. In certain situations, working in environments with limited interactions and verbal communication could restrict deaf individuals’ job progress.

Deaf people working in hearing environments likely faced daily communication barriers and challenges related to the use of sign language, the main language for deaf people. When asked how they communicated with colleagues and supervisors, some interviewees said that they did not use sign language as the people around them were not good at using sign language:

‘I contact with them with sign language, but they don’t understand me’.

Another employee stated:

‘I work with hearing people, and they are friendly with me, but they don’t use sign language. I use my phone sometimes, but I know they have only a little sign language’.

‘One issue that I faced and nearly lost my job because of was that customers did not understand what I was trying to say’.

‘I use a different language, and hearing people do not recognise this language, so I feel isolated in the job’.

Another employee said:

‘I did two interviews with different organisations, but they rejected my application as they said I used a different language’.

These statements indicate a lack of awareness of the needs of deaf people in the workplace, such as hiring sign language interpreters and providing sign language training for hearing employees.

An interviewee with a hearing impairment who worked in the Ministry of Labour added:

‘I worked hard to reach this position, and I think I am lucky because I have a sign language interpreter in my job, and I am only deaf employee in this job. I met many deaf people who have been seeking for jobs for years and have never gotten employment’.

The participant noted a need for workplace modifications for deaf people, particularly in relation to sign language interpreters. The interviewees also believed that Saudi Arabia had few sign language interpreters, but the participants were working to provide workshops for managers and employees in some organisations that hired deaf people.

A woman who had worked in the private sector for more than seven years reported that to ensure that that organisations that hired deaf people did not have difficulties with sign language, she created a Twitter account for sign language interpreters interested in volunteering at organisations in need. In her case, one interpreter had a chance to work in the same workplace as she. She stated that:

‘My colleagues who are also deaf people and I demanded hiring an employee who can sign, and we got that demand’.

Another interviewee said:

‘I have been working for around four years, and I never attend meetings because of the sign language matter’.

It, therefore, is clear that deaf people were not given priority in providing services to help them adapt to work activities. The previous interviewee explained that he wanted to attend meetings and other work activities with hearing people, but difficulties with communication extended to unequal opportunities within the workplace even in interactions as simple as communicating with employees about work matters and participating in regular meetings:

‘I have not attended any meeting I have a chance to. I don’t want to. There is no sign language interpreter, and without it, I will not understand what is going on in that meeting’.

Another deaf employee said:

‘The first meeting I attend was the last one. I cannot engage with them without sign language interpreters or note takers’.

Although the participant did not take part in formal work meetings due to the oral nature of the discussion, work information was communicated to him:

‘Information is put on paper and put into my desk. Usually, this is how I get information to do my daily work’.

He was the only deaf person at this company, but he seemed to be happy with his work and participated in work activities.

One major communication challenge faced by deaf people in the workplace was the lack of communication support. Social interactions in informal conversations could result in their feeling of exclusion. It is important to note that some employers ignored employment policies for disabled people. Recruitment methods for deaf people were lacking as some of the interviewee got their jobs through contacts. They also agreed that they received no training to begin their employment or carry out their assigned tasks.

The participants use various techniques to avoiding feeling isolated and to interact with their co-workers:

‘I usually use notes or my phone to communicate with my friends. My colleagues leave notes on the top of my desk with list of my daily work that I need to complete every day’.

Another deaf employee said:

‘I really enjoy communicating with my colleagues. I use my phone if I want to add something or use simple signing’.

Physical Barriers

Some interviewees commented that the work environment was an important consideration due to their hearing impairments. Most deaf employees who worked in hearing environments sought to work in quiet environments and avoided working directly with the public. Deaf people in public positions could face challenging noise environments and access to meetings. The public sector usually had more employees than the private sectors, which could create difficulties for deaf people. One participant who worked as an assistant in a public school mentioned:

‘All of the staff are hearing people, and our office is very noisy. I cannot focus’.

Another interviewee explained:

‘In my job, I have to attend meetings, and they use microphones, and I have to remove my hearing aid because it is loud for me’.

Such statements differed from those of the interviewees working in the private sector. For instance, one participant said:

‘I have my own office, and it is quiet. There are not many employees’.

Another deaf employee said:

‘When I am looking for a job, I put the condition of a non-noisy environment as the first condition’.

In many cases, these difficulties had been addressed by solutions, including reducing the volume of microphones and providing quiet staff rooms. Several comments praised supportive colleges and managers:

‘I work with supportive colleges. They understand my position as a deaf person’.

Another responded said:

‘My supervisor is very supportive. He changed, moved my desk to a silent area’.

Obtaining Accommodations

The participants encountered difficulties obtaining important accommodations, particularly interpreters but also flashing alarms and telephone amplifiers. Acquiring these accommodations sometimes involved lengthy waits. A deaf teacher said:

‘I required a flashing alarm when I started my job. I got it after around seven months’.

Another participant mentioned:

‘All of my colleagues have telephones for their offices, except me. I am still waiting’.

Some deaf participants reported a lack of deaf awareness training and hearing impairment information for co-workers and managers. However, others described the opposite:

‘We three deaf people work in the same department. I planned and organised a workshop and explained who we are and how we engage in work activities without services to help us’.

Some deaf workers reported that hiring sign language interpreters was difficult and costly, so they avoiding demanding sign language interpreters:

‘It was indirectly mentioned. During the interview, I was asked if I wanted to get that job without complete services. Do you still want that job? I said “yes” without thinking’.

However, several participants reported working in supportive environments:

‘Some of my colleagues are supportive. If I have meetings, they take notes’.

Another deaf employee said:

‘Depending on the event or the meeting, for formal meetings, I get a sign language interpreter. Also, if we have big event, and an organisation may visit us, I get a sign language interpreter’.

Type of Organisation and Job

Some deaf employees commented that the type of organisation and job in which they might work was an important consideration due to their hearing impairment. Often, they sought work in quiet environments and avoided working directly with public. For example, one participant described his experience at two institutions:

‘I changed my first job because it was very noisy, and they didn’t have a quiet area to work in’.

Some participants mentioned concerns about using the telephone and typing as barriers:

‘I cannot answer the phone inside the office. While hearing people, they can answer the phone’.

Another deaf employee who attended work meetings every month said:

‘I have to repeat my request during every meeting to reduce the sound of microphone that affects my hearing aids’.


Attitudes were important factors related to disability and employment in organisations. The interviewees linked their low salaries and lack of promotions to their hearing impairments. Some interviewees reported specific examples:

‘My colleagues and I have the same level of work, but at the end of the month, they get a higher salary than me’.

Another deaf employee said:

‘I have asked for more pay, but they ignored my request’.

In many situations, promotions were not feasible options for deaf employees as they were for hearing employees:

‘I really enjoy working in my job, but I hope that one day, I got promotions or work trips like the others. I don’t have this opportunity’.

When asked about promotion opportunities, one participant stated:

‘No, this is what I struggle with. I have sent reports multiple time asking for a promotion like other employees, but I haven’t heard any responses. That why I work part time in deaf club’.

In the interviews, some participants made it clear that they faced low expectation from their co-workers and managers due to a lack of awareness of their ability to work as well as hearing people:

‘Often, I get simple tasks to do, like organise the customer papers in files’.

The participant discussed this issue with the manager but received an unfair response, as the participant explained:

‘If I have to do tasks like hearing employees, I should be at their level of hearing’.

Another employee said:

‘Every morning, I come to my desk and find a note with list of tasks that need to be done by me, but these are very simple and can be completed in a half an hour’.

Several participants reported what happened after they completed their work:

‘They always check my work, and it seems they don’t trust my work. This makes me angry sometimes’.

Another deaf employee said:

‘My friends who are deaf and I work in the same section. We always talk together, and the others are nice, but the problem is they don’t understand our language, and we prefer to talk outside the office’.

The co-workers’ attitudes experienced by deaf employees could result from communication barriers and hearing employees’ uncertainty about how to communicate and reach out.

However, other participants experienced positive attitudes from their co-workers and managers:

‘I never found myself treated as a person with less ability. I work with my colleges full time, and sometimes, I need to complete my work the next day’.

Another deaf employee said:

‘I have good relationships with the people around me’.

Interestingly, some participants reported that their employers and co-workers did not necessarily know that they had with hearing impairments as neither group made an attempt to complete introductions. However, a few participants reported that their organisations made introductions, which helped them adapt easily and introduce themselves to other employees. This measure had positive impacts on co-workers and supervisors attitudes towards deaf employees.


From the interview findings, it appears that deaf employees experienced a range of environmental and attitudinal barriers in work life. The findings indicate that the most problematic workplace situations were social gatherings, training activities and meetings. In addition, obtaining interpretation services often required considerable struggles, and sign language interpreters were rarely provided in some situations. A lack of provision of interpreters for social situations resulted in exclusion from formal and informal communication with co-workers and managers.

Obviously, communication difficulties have been significant contributors to difficulties securing employment and continue to be primary barriers to job maintenance and advancement for deaf employees. In such cases, discriminatory treatment of deaf employees predominates in many aspects of employment. Cases of underemployment also arise as deaf employees are allocated to low-status, low-skilled jobs.

Additionally, the majority of workplaces did not provide deaf individuals with the appropriate services to enable them to perform their work as required. This finding indicates that increasing knowledge and awareness of deafness is an important factor in creating positive attitudes towards people with hearing impairment.

Finally, employers also had a general lack of awareness about the needs of deaf employees. This finding indicates a need to create awareness among organisations about the abilities of deaf individuals, so employers recognise that hearing impairment is not inability, and deaf persons can perform jobs as well as hearing people. Finally, deaf individuals should be encouraged to make their presence known in the labour market as doing so will enable their co-workers and supervisors to develop positive attitudes towards people with hearing impairments.


  1. McCracken, G. (1988). The long interview. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
  2. Strauss, A and Corbin, J (1998). The basic of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
09 March 2021
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