Deafness in the Workplace: Lived Experience with Hearing Loss
Cara Low, Head of Marketing at EW Group, discusses her personal experience of dealing with hearing loss in the workplace, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how employers can better support their hearing-impaired employees.
At the age of 18 I was diagnosed as partially deaf. I have sensorineural hearing loss which is linked to the nerves in my ear either not developing properly, pre-aging or being damaged. I am more than 60% deaf with quite severe tinnitus (for an insight into what I hear, the Tinnitus Clinic has a great page on tinnitus sounds – I hear the 7500 Hz tone and the screeching ones constantly).
In this blog, I discuss my experiences and the challenges I’ve encountered in the workplace. I also explore how employers can create a more inclusive workplace and better support their hearing-impaired employees.
My experience with hearing loss in the workplace
I was fortunate early in my career to have an understanding employer who recognised the challenges I was facing with my hearing. At the time, I was struggling with clunky NHS hearing aids and a lack of understanding as to why I had lost my hearing, leading to feelings of frustration.
I was working for a subsea engineering company, Jee Ltd, and Trevor Jee, Founder and MD, put me in touch with The Audiology Room in London where I met with Dr. Tony Wright. Being partially deaf himself, Dr. Wright was sensitive and empathetic, with a better grasp than the doctors I had previously seen on the impact and emotional effect of this for me.
Following an MRI scan and some additional tests, it was confirmed the bones in my ear were normal and my hearing loss was likely gradual from birth. This helped put my mind at ease, even more so when Trevor also subsequently funded the purchase of digital hearing aids for me, which helped me no end.
Since then, my confidence has grown hugely and I have progressed in my marketing career, leading teams and managing senior stakeholders. I recently joined EW Group and have been on a whirlwind journey learning about all things diversity and inclusion. From my initial interview request, where I was asked if I needed any accessibility adjustments, to joining the company and my induction, I have been impressed by the consideration EW gives to all its employees, and the inclusive culture which has made me feel at home so quickly.
But this hasn’t always been the case. In my working life I have encountered numerous insensitivities, some more blatant than others. A workplace lacking an inclusive culture can become a hostile and isolating environment for hard of hearing employees. Awareness and inclusivity training is one way you can help your teams gain a better understanding of how to accommodate and engage with their disabled colleagues.
The effect of the pandemic for hearing-impaired people
The pandemic has been a challenge for all of us in different ways. For me, the pandemic combined with my deafness has certainly made me feel isolated and unable to communicate.
Despite explaining that I lip read, more people than I wish to count have refused to lower their masks when speaking to me, even when behind Perspex screens. This was particularly stressful when I had to take my dog to the vets and couldn’t understand what was being said or what they were doing to her. I know my experience with this is not unique and many of the deaf community have encountered similar issues and have been left feeling isolated.
Simon Houghton, a deaf awareness advocate, has been tirelessly raising awareness of this over the past year, producing insightful videos to educate and help employers better support their hard of hearing staff during the pandemic. It has been great to see companies and individuals engaging in the discussion and actively taking steps to address their inclusivity for deaf employees.
The pandemic has changed the way we communicate, with online meetings now the norm. This brings a number of benefits and drawbacks for the deaf community. People do not speak over each other as often in online meetings as they do in face-to-face interactions, which makes it much easier for the hard of hearing to follow the conversation. However, it is important to be mindful of sound quality and background noise which can make it more difficult.
It has been wonderful to see many technology providers enhancing their accessibility features, such as the live captions function now available on Microsoft Teams. Whilst it might not be perfect, it is a step in the right direction towards more inclusive meetings and I hope to see more technology providers incorporating these accessibility features.
Moving towards a more inclusive culture
I was recently pleased to see a model wearing a hearing device whilst browsing on ASOS.com, and posted about it on LinkedIn. I was astounded by the response. Over 6,000 people liked or commented on the post, expressing the importance of inclusive marketing and the representation of diverse groups in advertising. It is clear this resonates with those with disabilities, but also those without.
Creating a culture that is inclusive of physical and hidden disabilities is a better place for us all and we can all actively take steps towards ensuring inclusivity is at the heart of everything we do. Actively think about accessibility when planning events – does the venue have disabled access? Will I need an AV system to ensure my audience can hear my panelists? Are our marketing materials and collateral accessible e.g. captions for the hard of hearing and audio commentary to help the visually impaired. But this goes much further than events and marketing. From recruitment and selection through to on-boarding and staff engagement, we need to incorporate this into every stage to ensure accessibility as a whole.
How to support hearing-impaired staff in the workplace
Here are my key takeaways and advice for supporting people like me:
1. Ask and listen
It’s often the small things that make a big difference and my top tip is just that – ask and listen. Ask people if they have any accessibility requirements which you need to consider – this is applicable from recruitment to every meeting you have and a must for creating an inclusive culture.
Ask your colleagues to share their own lived experiences, whether their own or as a relative or friend of someone affected. This is a really strong way of engaging with your workforce and raising awareness and understanding.
2. Be kind
Consider the impact your actions have on others and what you can do to accommodate and make people with hearing impairments included in the conversation. Shouting, talking really slowly or using simple words is not what I mean here – I am deaf, not stupid!
3. Accommodate lip readers
Many of us rely on filling in the gaps by lip reading. To accommodate this, face the person you are talking to and look at them so they know you are talking to them. Make sure your mouth is visible and avoid obscuring your mouth with your hands or, if you’re wearing a mask, lower it whilst speaking to allow them to lip read.
4. Avoid getting frustrated
We know it may be annoying having to repeat yourself numerous times for us, but it is much more frustrating for us! Please be patient and speak clearly and we will get there. I also find it useful to ask people to use the police (phonetic) alphabet when spelling things out to me – for instance ‘s’ and ‘f’ sound very similar and can’t easily be differentiated when lip reading!
Helpful resources on deafness and hearing impairments
There are many helpful resources available. Some of those I have found helpful I’ve included below:
- The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) offer support and useful guides on topics such as tinnitus, technology and assistive devices, and local support services.
- Deaf Unity is another great site with a host of resources for educators, families, professionals and students.
- The British Deaf Society (BDA) have some informative FAQs and information on British Sign Language which are worth checking out.
- Learning labs provides assistive technology online training, accessibility support and e-learning solutions for students