Giving Back

Making Your Meetings Deaf-Friendly

A workshop in advance of a National Association of the Deaf conference shows how meeting and hospitality professionals can improve their Deaf-friendly customer service.

Return Business Many attendees  reported that NAD 2016 was one of the  best conferences they had ever been to.
Return Business Many attendees reported that NAD 2016 was one of the
best conferences they had ever been to.

Melissa Greenlee noticed problems the moment she checked in to her hotel. She’d arrived in Phoenix to lead a two-hour workshop on Deaf-friendly customer service — a prelude to the National Association of the Deaf’s (NAD) annual conference at the Phoenix Convention Center on July 5–9. But based on the miscues she saw in the lobby, the city didn’t seem ready for nearly 2,000 Deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors. The televisions lacked closed captioning. The staff lacked basic sign-language skills.

“They froze in fear when they met a Deaf person,” said Greenlee, the founder of, a website where Deaf and hard-of-hearing people rate businesses. Because of the hotel staff’s discomfort, Greenlee also felt rushed. “Hotel clerks normally take time to share their services, but they skimp on sharing this with Deaf guests,” she said. “It shows we receive subpar service, even though we are paying guests, just like hearing guests.”

Poor customer service is why Greenlee formed in 2012, and why she now offers workshops to show businesses how to better serve the more than 48 million Americans who are Deaf or hard of hearing. “We are an underserved demographic, but Deaf consumers are loyal customers,” Greenlee said. “Invest in us and you will see dividends for years to come.”

Phoenix was ready to make that investment. More than 200 local travel and hospitality professionals attended the workshop in advance of NAD 2016, including employees from the Phoenix Convention Center, Visit Phoenix, and a variety of downtown hotels. But would the training lead to improvements?


The workshop’s first goal was to show that Deaf people are diverse. “There is no one size fits all,” said Greenlee, who proposed the workshop to NAD. “Some use sign language to communicate, some use their voice and speechreading. Some do both. And some rely on assistive technology like hearing aids, while others do not.”

Attendees also learned basic American Sign Language (ASL) vocabulary, as well as how to applaud: by raising your hands and wiggling them. “For hearing people, it is a little strange,” said Kevin Mattingly, CFE, deputy director of the convention center, who attended the training with his staff. “But it makes you realize that sound means nothing when communicating with a Deaf person. When staff experienced the sensation of communicating in silence, it really sunk in.”

Greenlee also noted the importance of lighting in public places like restaurants and conferences. Can attendees see each other well enough for signing and speechreading? Can a restaurant turn up the lights in certain areas? Deaf people access information with their eyes, so they rely on ASL, interpreters, or captioning in real time (CART) when watching a presentation or speaker. If banquet servers are blocking their view, or delivering food in front of people instead of behind them, it’s a problem.

And how will servers communicate with Deaf guests? Pointing is easy, but what if a guest has a food allergy? “My biggest revelation was not only how large the Deaf community is,” Mattingly said, “but how much they endure just to do business and enjoy entertainment.”


For most attendees, the training was an eye-opener, and led to simple yet significant changes. Margie Chemnick, who works at the downtown Phoenix Visitor Information Center, learned how to say “Good morning” and “How are you?” in sign language, as well as how to guide people to Starbucks — “which is very important,” she said with a laugh.

Mattingly hired a Deaf barista to work at Starbucks in the convention center throughout the conference, one of many improvements to the venue — from activating closed captioning on all TVs to training wait staff not to block views. Food outlets offered menu cards that listed the ingredients in each dish; they also provided paper and pencils so customers could write their orders and hand them to servers.

“We made sure that staff carried a pad and pen at all times,” said Mattingly, who is now working with the International Association of Venue Managers to offer’s training to industry professionals. “I’ve sort of been on a mission since NAD. Our industry has a lot to learn, and I’d like to be a part of that process.”

So did Greenlee notice any improvements in the convention center and throughout the city? “Oh, my gosh, yes!” she said. “I was blown away by each venue’s efforts. Bartenders were signing ‘martini’ and ‘shot’ and ‘all done?’ Hotels allowed us to text room service for things we needed, interpreters were placed at the lobbies, city ambassadors on the street had visual maps and used gestures — the list goes on!”

Many NAD attendees said it was one of the best conferences they ever attended. “Deaf people probably got to experience true customer service at a hotel and conference center for the first time in their lives,” said Greenlee, who is planning similar workshops in Salt Lake City, Miami, Seattle, St. Paul, and Los Angeles. “We try to get our basic needs met and to function in a world dominated by hearing people. It’s not often we feel completely included.”

Talking Tips

Want to connect with Deaf audiences? Here’s some advice from Melissa Greenlee, the founder of

In written materials, capitalize the “D” in “Deaf,” just as you would capitalize Chinese or Dutch.

 Refrain from using the term “hearing-impaired” — many Deaf people find it offensive, because they don’t feel “impaired.” It’s better to say “hard of hearing.”

Take the Deaf person’s lead on how to communicate. Most Deaf people, for example, don’t speech read, and even the most skilled speech readers can’t grasp every word.

 Visual cues are important, so use bright yellow or orange paper for signs. It makes them easier to spot.

 Giving directions? Pointing is fine in Deaf culture, and helps to get the message across.

Editor’s Note: Capitalizing the “d” in “Deaf” is not something that has become a mainstream convention. But many, including the National Association for the Deaf, use it to recognize Deaf culture.

Ken Budd

Contributing Editor Ken Budd is a freelance writer based in Burke, Virginia, author of the memoir The Voluntourist, and host of “650,000 Hours,” a new digital series about travel and volunteering.