Share On

Jump To

Jump To Section

Share On

Jump to
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents

    Jump To

    Jump To Section

    Accessibility for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community Members at Your Animal Sanctuary

    Photograph of a black rod iron sign that is in the shape of a house with a cat on top. There is a black sign hanging underneath the house that says "welcome".
    Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash


    One of the wonderful aspirations of most animal sanctuary spaces is the desire to create and nurture cultures of inclusivity and kindness for everyone. When we’re creating these cultures, we are exploring how to nurture more kind and inclusive thoughts and behaviors for others and ourselves, as well as more kind and inclusive physical spaces. In this resource, we’re going to take a close look at how sanctuaries can nurture and create spaces that are welcoming, inclusive of, and accessible to deaf and hard of hearing community members who visit and work there.

    The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Communit(ies)

    Photograph of a bright green field with a rainbow in a bright blue sky in the background.
    Photo by Stainless Images on Unsplash

    According to Gallaudet University, there are approximately 35 million people in the United States who are deaf or hard of hearing. Many of these individuals refer to themselves as being members of the Deaf community, which is a group of people who align themselves with particular cultural values, norms, knowledge, and practices that come along with using American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary language. For many of these community members who were born deaf or hard of hearing, deafness is not perceived as a loss or disability, but rather as another cultural attribute of the Deaf community. Other deaf or hard of hearing individuals in the United States who find themselves losing their hearing because of illness, trauma, or age often do not align themselves with Deaf culture or use ASL as their primary way of communicating. For these folks, deafness is sometimes perceived as a loss or disability. However, how deaf and hard of hearing folks prefer to identify themselves and be labeled is personal and dependent upon the individual. 

    Why Deaf and Hard of Hearing Accessibility is Important

    Accessibility is the Law

    Although it’s critically important to remember that many members of the Deaf community do not perceive deafness as a disability, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law that defines deafness as such in order to prevent discrimination against people who are deaf or hard of hearing. If you are operating an animal sanctuary within the United States that has been granted 501(c)3 status, has 15 or more employees, and/or is open to the public, this means you are required to comply with ADA accessibility standards and make your space and services as accessible as possible to deaf and hard of hearing people.

    Language Around Accessibility is Important
    Although there is not a monolithic language style preference shared across all disabled folks, it’s important to use as welcoming and respectful language as possible when communicating about accessibility. We would encourage the sanctuary community to adapt the cooler tonality of ADA language around accessibility to be a bit warmer for communicative and educational purposes.

    Accessibility is the Right Thing to Do

    Beyond the legal requirement, ensuring compliance with ADA standards also means that your organization is creating a more welcoming space for more people. If we understand disability as a mismatch between someone and their environment, we not only recognize that it’s the disabling environment that prevents the person from doing or accessing something, but that disability is also something that everyone experiences at some point throughout their life, whether it be permanent, temporary, or situational. In this way, accessibility can be thought of as an ongoing process of working towards finding solutions to disabling environments so that we can include more people in our spaces in more meaningful ways. Accessibility benefits everyone.

    Communicating with Deaf and Hard of Hearing People

    When it comes to communicating with deaf or hard of hearing people, it’s important to understand that each person has their own unique communication needs and preferences, and that these needs and preferences are also dependent upon the setting and situation in which you all are communicating. For example, background noise, lights, pace of conversation, number of speakers, accents, facial hair, masks, etc. all have an impact on the communication preferences and needs of deaf and hard of hearing people. While members of the Deaf community in the United States use ASL as their primary language, not every deaf or hard of hearing person utilizes or understands it. And though many members of the Deaf community can understand spoken and written languages like English, not every deaf or hard of hearing person utilizes or understands them. This is why it is imperative not to make assumptions about the communication needs and preferences of deaf or hard of hearing individuals without inquiring with them first. 

    When it comes to nurturing and creating a sanctuary space that is welcoming to deaf and hard of hearing people, there are a lot of accommodations and technologies to explore. Though sign language is one way that some deaf and hard of hearing people choose to communicate, writing, gestures, speech, technology, and tactile and visual aids are also ways they might prefer to communicate. Communication preferences and needs look different for everyone! If your sanctuary is new to this subject matter, a good place to start is by providing all of your pertinent information and communications in text format. In the sections that follow, this resource provides a broad non-exhaustive overview of various kinds of technologies, services, and accommodations that sanctuaries can incorporate and build into their budgets, spaces, and educational programs that would make them more welcoming for deaf and hard of hearing community members. 

    Offsite Accessibility for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People

    Photograph of an open laptop with one person onscreen and another person sitting in front of the laptop. They are on a video conferencing call utilizing sign language to communicate with one another.
    Photo by SHVETS production from Pexels

    Website Accessibility

    In compliance with ADA standards for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, it’s important that all videos you include on your website have closed captions, transcripts, and/or subtitles. It’s also important that you include multiple contact methods on your website (e.g., phone, email, live chat, text, etc.), as well as a statement such as “Please be in touch if you need any accommodations and we will do our best to accommodate”. Incorporating these simple elements into your website allows deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate with you more easily and become familiar with your organization’s mission, space, and accommodations more readily. 

    Telephone Relay Services

    Telephone relay services provide a three-way method of communication between a deaf or hard of hearing person, a communication assistant (e.g., sign language interpreter), and a hearing person. This allows deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people to dial into the relay service, provide the telephone number they’d like to call, and connect with that number via a relay operator. The operator is responsible for converting all verbal communication into text and all text into verbal communication.

    Video Relay Services and Video Remote Interpreting

    Utilizing video conferencing technology (e.g., Zoom, FaceTime, GoogleMeet, etc.), video relay services provide a three-way method of communication between a deaf or hard of hearing person, a communication assistant (e.g., sign language interpreter), and a hearing person. This allows deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people to communicate with one another via video. The communication assistant interprets their messages back and forth. 

    Relay Service Providers
    Relay service providers, communication assistants, and interpreters are sometimes also referred to as speech-to-text providers. For tips and information on hiring a qualified speech-to-text provider for your organization, please check out this resource from the National Deaf Center.

    Important Relay Tip
    Sometimes, when hearing folks who aren’t knowledgeable of relay services pick up the phone and hear a relay operator on the other line, they immediately hang up because they assume the operator is a telemarketer. To prevent this from happening at your sanctuary, it can be really beneficial to establish and provide a separate telephone number specifically designated for deaf and hard of hearing folks to dial and utilize to get in touch with you. That way, if the designated phone number rings at your sanctuary, you will know that a deaf or hard of hearing person is trying to reach you and might be utilizing a relay service operator to assist them in the process.

    Online Educational Programming Accommodations

    It’s important to build accessibility into any education program you create and there are a lot of accommodations to consider when you facilitate one online. For deaf and hard of hearing people specifically, providing relay services and live captions is essential. It might also be beneficial to record meetings and presentations, limit the number of participants on screen, establish participation protocols with the whole group, build in pauses, and utilize captions, alt text and visual indicators throughout your programming. This is not an exhaustive list of possible accommodations and it’s very important that you maintain a continuing dialogue with your deaf and hard of hearing participants before, during, and after your program so that you can honor their communication needs and preferences. For more information on facilitating online educational programming for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, please check out this resource from the National Deaf Center.

    Onsite Accessibility for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People

    Two people utilizing sign language with one another. The person on the left is wearing a yellow shirt and the person on the right is wearing a purple and pink shirt. There is a bookshelf in the background.
    Photo by SHVETS production from Pexels

    There are a lot of onsite technologies, services, and accommodations that sanctuaries can incorporate and build into their budgets, spaces, and educational programs that would make them more welcoming for deaf and hard of hearing community members. Establishing deaf and hard of hearing accessibility requirements early in your educational programming and sanctuary design can also help ensure that each staff member knows their responsibility and can be held accountable for upholding a welcoming environment. This will ensure that you’re not only following ADA legal requirements, but making sure your deaf and hard of hearing visitors, staff members, and volunteers have the best possible experience at your sanctuary! 

    Environmental Accommodations:

    Environmental accommodations may include physical adjustments to your sanctuary space(s) that improve visibility, reduce distracting noises, and improve safety for everyone.

    • Signage: Make sure any necessary information such as safety signs, directions, opening hours, points of interest within your sanctuary (e.g., reception, visitor center, restrooms), room numbers or names, etc. can easily be read and identified with proper signage. It’s also incredibly helpful to combine text information with pictograms. With clear signage, deaf and hard of hearing folks can find their way around your sanctuary more safely, independently, and at their own pace.
    • Change or add lighting to enhance visibility. Philips Hue is a lighting brand that provides products approved by deaf and hard of hearing community members.
    • Add vision panels to doors and walls to improve lines of sight.
    • Use round or oval tables for discussions.
    • If you have any hidden corridors on your property, install convex mirrors to allow folks to see what’s coming.
    • Block out extraneous noise to eliminate disturbances and harm. Extremely loud noises (e.g., construction) can hurt the ears of folks with hearing aids. It’s important to be mindful of this during your sanctuary’s visiting hours, tours, educational events, etc. 
    • Visual emergency notifications: Install flashing lights that work in conjunction with emergency auditory alarms.
    • Make sure that all staff members are informed when a deaf or hard of hearing visitor, volunteer, or staff member is onsite so that everyone can work together to create as safe and welcoming an environment as possible. Although deaf and hard of hearing folks are incredibly sensitive to their surroundings, if a potentially dangerous situation arises (e.g., unpredictable cranky resident) that requires their immediate attention, it’s important that you have an established safety protocol in place that all visitors, volunteers, and staff members are properly trained in. This could include waving a red flag in the air, turning on a strobe light, waving your hands in the air, or a combination thereof.

    Sign Language Interpreters

    For many deaf and hard of hearing folks, sign language is their primary language and preferred method of communication. Although many fluent users of American Sign Language can understand written English, it’s often a second language or foreign language to them. For this reason, it’s important that your sanctuary be able to build sign language interpretation into your budget and programming whenever possible. Finding a sign language interpreter in your area isn’t as challenging as you might think. Take a look at the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and consider how you could hire deaf or hard of hearing people to conduct sign language tours and other educational programs at your sanctuary on a regular basis. Having properly trained deaf and hard of hearing folks who utilize sign language on staff is a great way to ensure that your space is welcoming and comfortable for deaf and hard of hearing visitors. Once you’ve built sign language accessibility into your programming, make sure you include a statement on your website and property acknowledging this (e.g., “Sign language interpretation is available upon request”).

    Sign Language Tours vs. Spoken Tours with Sign Language Interpretation
    In addition to being incredibly beneficial for many deaf and hard of hearing folks, having sanctuary programs that utilize sign language as the primary form of communication is also beneficial for sign language interpreters. Consider a spoken tour that tacks on a sign language interpreter. In addition to having to walk and sign at the same time, interpreters also have to watch and interpret the tour guide. This can be really challenging, especially if they’re walking backwards! If a tour guide says “This cow over here”, by the time the interpreter gets to sign “This cow over here”, the guide might have already moved on and “this cow” may no longer be known to the interpreter. So, if you choose to have sign language interpreters co-facilitate spoken tours, please make sure that the speaking tour guides slow down, build in plenty of pauses, and remain in the line of sight of interpreters and deaf or hard of hearing folks at all times. Additionally, if everyone in the group is wearing a face mask, be mindful that this makes interpretation and lip reading extra challenging since a lot of ASL grammar is communicated via facial expressions.

    Create Resident Name Signs!
    For folks who utilize sign language as their primary language, every human and nonhuman individual has a unique “name sign” or descriptive sign language signature that usually incorporates their initials. For example, Basil the cow at Basil’s Barn Animal Sanctuary has the sign letter “b” that goes from the eye and flows outwards due to his long eyelashes. Whether or not you have a sign language interpreter on staff, you can work with someone who is fluent in this language to come up with a name sign for each one of your residents and open up another wonderful opportunity for deaf and hard of hearing visitors to connect with them.

    Sanctuary Tour Scripts

    If your sanctuary is unable to conduct tours in sign language, it’s important to provide all the necessary information from the speaking tours in text format so that deaf and hard of hearing folks, as well as speakers of other languages, visual learners, and more can follow along as you move around. This should include all of the information that the sanctuary guide presents during each tour, as well as a Frequently Asked Questions section in case a visitor asks a question that requires the guide to go “off- script”.  You could provide this text on reusable laminated paper or via iPads, depending on your budget. For example, you might create a laminated flip book, packet, or poster with photos of each resident or species and captions detailing their names, lives, and experiences for folks to read through at their own pace.

    Potential Opportunity!
    Apple iPads and other kinds of modern tablets have speech-to-text apps that are incredibly helpful to have on hand for folks who require this type of accommodation. If you are unable to build tablets into your budget, there may be a way for your sanctuary to partner with an organization that may be able to provide them. It doesn’t hurt to ask companies and see if they might be able to furnish you with technology at a lower cost, or potentially free of charge, in order to further your accessibility goals!

    Assistive Listening Systems for Hard of Hearing Folks

    Assistive Listening Systems are amplifiers that increase the volume of sound for folks who are hard of hearing or have difficulty hearing in certain settings where there is a lot of background noise. There are three different types of ALS technologies, but each of them utilizes a microphone, a transmission technology, and a device to bring the amplified sound to a person’s ear. If you utilize any of these devices, please be sure to advertise this information on your website and during your events!

    • FM Systems: FM systems use radio broadcast technology to transmit sound from a transmitter (e.g., microphone) to a receiver (e.g., headset, earphone, or hearing aid). 
    • Infrared Systems: Infrared systems use light-based technology to transmit sound from a special transmitter to a special receiver headset. The transmitter converts sound into infrared light, which is then sent to the receiver and converted back into sound.
    • Inductive Loop Systems: Inductive loop systems use electromagnetic technology to deliver sound from a transmitter (e.g., microphone) to a receiver (e.g., headset or amplifier) via a wire that is looped around a specific area.

    Microphones are also wonderful tools to build into your educational programming for amplified sound, especially for tours and events where there are a lot of people. They are relatively inexpensive, too!

    For more information on Assistive Listening Systems, please check out this resource from the National Association of the Deaf.

    Smartphones, Tablets, and Computers

    Smartphones, tablets, and computers can facilitate communication at your sanctuary in a variety of ways. In addition to providing email, text, and chat capabilities, these devices also offer a lot of software applications specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing community members.

    • Ava: Ava is an instant transcription app that can transcribe conversations between deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people.
    • Evelity: If you operate a large sanctuary on a large property, Evelity is a navigation app that can help deaf and hard of hearing visitors find their way around more independently. In addition to providing text instructions and icons to guide visitors, the app can also provide supplemental information about pre-specified areas at your sanctuary. You might even be able to utilize this tool to offer some version of a self-guided tour!
    • QR Scanning software: A QR code is a type of barcode that can be scanned using a camera on a mobile device that is equipped with QR scanning software. You can utilize QR codes to label and caption physical locations on your property to enhance your visitors’ experience.
    • C-print: C-print is a computer-assisted system that transcribes speech to text. It allows a hearing captionist to type words as they are spoken and then provides a real-time text display.
    • Speech synthesizer: A speech synthesizer is a device that generates spoken language on the basis of written input on a keyboard.
    • Automatic Speech Recognition Software: This software generates written text on a computer screen on the basis of spoken input via a microphone.
    • Computer-assisted Note-taking: Computer-assisted note-taking is a technique that allows folks to type notes into word processing software on a computer and project them onto a screen or wall for folks to read. 


    Captioning is the process of transcribing spoken dialogue and sound effects from a video into text. The text, or “caption”, is usually displayed at the bottom of a video screen. In addition to being incredibly important for deaf and hard of hearing folks, captions are also critically important for speakers and readers of other languages, visual learners, as well as people who are deafblind. Captions allow people who are deafblind to have Braille input from their computers.

    There are two types of captions: offline captions and real-time captions. Offline captions provide the most accurate transcription since they are recorded post-production. These captions can either be open or closed. Open captions are always displayed at the bottom of the screen and cannot be turned off, whereas closed captions can be turned on or off. Real-time captions or CART (Computer Assisted Real-time Translation) occur when a captionist transcribes the spoken dialogue and sounds of a live event in real-time so that the speakers’ words are displayed on the screen as they talk. Offline and real-time captions do not necessarily need to be generated manually. There are a variety of services that offer robo and/or human captioning to help make the process easier, such as YouTube, Adobe Premiere editing software, and

    Transcripts of Audio Recordings

    Transcripts are not generally as accommodating as offline captions since viewers are required to read along and watch a video at the same time. However, they can be useful tools to have on-hand in case someone asks for them.

    Workplace Inclusion for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Employees

    Photograph of a field of sunflowers.
    Photo by Vijith Quadros on Unsplash

    As an employer, it is your responsibility to provide reasonable workplace accommodations for deaf and hard of hearing employees. This means providing them with equal employment opportunities to participate in the application and interview processes, communicate effectively in the work space, have access to the resources they need to succeed in their position, attain the same level of performance as other employees in the same position, participate in trainings, meetings, professional development opportunities, and social events, and enjoy all the other benefits of employment at your sanctuary. Please remember that accessibility looks different for everyone and communication preferences and needs vary depending on the setting and the individual so it’s important to maintain an ongoing dialogue with employees who are deaf and hard of hearing. Primary consideration should always be given to the individual’s preference. However, by law you are not required to provide deaf and hard of hearing employees with “personal use items” (e.g., hearing aids) or accommodations that would result in the removal of an essential job duty, violation of job-related conduct rules, or an undue hardship to your organization (e.g., cost). If you determine that the cost of a specific accommodation would cause your organization an undue hardship, please try reaching out to your state vocational agencies and disability organizations to see whether they can help offset some of the expenses. There are also federal tax credits and deductions available in many states.

    In addition to the technologies, services, and accommodations we listed in the previous sections of this resource for onsite and offsite visitors, all of which can and should be extended to sanctuary employees, the information below is a list of more technologies, services, and accommodations you can build into your sanctuary workspace(s) that are specifically for deaf and hard of hearing staff members.

    Interview Considerations

    Prior to the Interview

    • Ask the applicant how they would prefer to communicate during the interview. If requested, coordinate to have a sign language interpreter available.
    • Send the applicant a written copy of the interview itinerary, questions, and any pertinent information on your organization.

    During the Interview

    • Even if a sign language interpreter is relaying your messages back and forth, be mindful that the applicant may still want to speak for themself at times. Regardless, maintain eye contact with and address your questions to the job candidate, not the interpreter.
    • Maintain an open dialogue with the candidate throughout the process and remain flexible in the event that they ask you to communicate something in a different way.

    Workplace Communication Considerations

    It’s important to maintain an ongoing dialogue with deaf and hard of hearing staff members regarding appropriate workspace arrangements and honor their preferences and needs to the best of your ability. One helpful way to make the physical workspace more inclusive is by educating all staff members on how to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment to deaf and hard of hearing colleagues prior to working together. Things like name tags with job descriptions can be a very helpful and simple accommodation for new hires. In addition, communications between staff members should always be available in text or visual format. Flashing lights that work in tandem with incoming phone calls, doorbells, and buzzers are important workplace communication considerations to make as well. If your organization cannot provide information textually or visually in some way, it’s important to ensure there is always a designated hearing staff member who is responsible for transcribing audio communications into text for your deaf and hard of hearing employees.

    Assistive Listening Devices (ALD) for Hard of Hearing Employees

    Assistive listening devices improve hearing ability for folks in a variety of settings. They include amplified telephones, hearing aid compatible phones and smartphones, television compatible devices, and alerting devices.

    Considerations for Orientations, Trainings, Meetings, Professional Development Opportunities, and Social Events

    • Send staff members a written copy of the group’s itinerary and any other pertinent information in advance of getting together
    • If requested, coordinate to have a sign language interpreter available.
    • Consider arranging for a live captioning service
    • Change or add lighting to enhance visibility of the space, speakers, and interpreters
    • Use round or oval tables
    • Establish participation protocols with the entire group:
      • Establish a nonverbal signal that staff members should use when they want to contribute. 
      • Visually indicate who will be speaking. 
      • Allow only one person to communicate at a time. They should look at the audience when they communicate, not have their back turned.
      • Ask deaf and hard of hearing staff members how they prefer others to get their attention (e.g., tap on the shoulder, wave, etc.)
      • Ensure a hearing staff member is transcribing any audio information into text (e.g., minutes, notes)
      • Utilize visual aids
      • Ensure all videos are captioned

    Emergency Accommodations and Considerations

    • Walk through emergency evacuation routes during employee orientations and trainings
    • Establish a buddy system by pairing a hearing person with a deaf or hard of hearing person during emergency situations
    • Communicate with staff members via text or email during an emergency
    • Although deaf and hard of hearing folks are particularly sensitive to their environments, concerns about not hearing potentially dangerous farm equipment or nonhuman animals are important to take into consideration. Therefore, it is imperative that you establish sanctuary protocols that will mitigate risk to the best of your ability. It is also important to provide a liability waiver for all staff members and volunteers that acknowledges the risks associated with sanctuary work and the maximal efforts of both parties to mitigate that risk.

    Useful Tools to Help Protect Nonhuman Animals in Distress
    If you have a deaf or hard of hearing person on your caregiving staff, consider installing cameras throughout your property that can connect to cell phone monitoring applications. These applications can be set to notify caregivers whenever there is movement that occurs in front of the camera in case something were to happen that requires their immediate attention.
    Another helpful tool to install is a “baby signaler”. This is a sensor that is plugged into an outlet and wirelessly connected to a cellphone or vibrating mechanism that comes with the sensor, which can be kept inside a caregiver’s pocket. In the event that an animal is in distress and crying for help, their cell phone or the vibrating mechanism will vibrate and the caregiver will feel the movement inside their pocket.

    Program Evaluation

    Program evaluation research is one of the most meaningful ways to determine how you can improve your sanctuary’s space and educational programming. As such, it should seek to include feedback from deaf and hard of hearing community members. Developing a strong understanding of deaf and hard of hearing folks who visit and work in your space is one of the most effective ways of ensuring that you are providing a welcoming and inclusive environment. This research could include a survey given at the end of an educational program or to an employee that says something such as, “We’re doing our best with what we know and we’d love to know one that thing that we can do better. What’s one thing that we can do to make your next visit even better and more welcoming?”. The most important aspect of this research is what you do with the results. So, make sure you are following through with your intentions to make your sanctuary as welcoming as possible based on what folks are saying and reasonably asking for. Performative statements are not helpful.

    Additional Resources for your Sanctuary to Explore

    Below is a list of additional resources we recommend for more in-depth guidance on creating and nurturing spaces that are welcoming and inclusive of deaf and hard of hearing people.

    • DeafTec provides resources for educators facilitating STEM-related education programs with deaf and hard of hearing learners.
    • The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) has a page with information and recommendations on where to find American Sign Language classes locally or online.

    Article Acknowledgements
    This resource could not have been created without the shared knowledge of Danielle and Stephanie from Basil’s Barn Animal Sanctuary, Jennifer Furlano, and Rebecca Friedman Lockhart. We are incredibly grateful for their contributions.


    A Guide to Accommodating Deaf Employees | Automatic Sync

    Accommodations | DeafTEC

    What You Need to Do to Ensure Accessibility for Deaf People at Public Venues | Inclusive City Maker

    Communicating with Deaf Individuals | National Deaf Center

    Why Captions Provide Equal Access | National Deaf Center

    Simple Accommodations for Deaf Employees You May Have Never Considered | The Society for Human Resource Management

    Article Tags

    About Author

    Get Updates In Your Inbox

    Join our mailing list to receive the latest resources from The Open Sanctuary Project!

    Continue Reading

    Skip to content