Creating an Enabling, Inclusive Environment for People Living with Deafness & Hearing Impairment in the Workplace

By Diane Wass, Managing Director

This week Deaf Awareness Week focuses on the theme of ‘inclusion’, highlighting the impact of hearing loss on everyday life and increasing visibility and inclusion of Deaf people, especially underrepresented groups such as immigrants, BMI and women. It also emphasises how people living with Deafness in education, health settings and the workplace are often overlooked and the impact this can have on mental health.

As a person with severe category hearing loss, who wears bilateral hearing aids, I am proud to be the Managing Director of the International Hub of a communications agency, as it challenges all the misconceptions and stigma the public can have about people living with hearing loss and their capabilities. It was probably because of my hearing loss that I always loved to write and think deeply- while growing up writing was my escape. However, living with hearing loss is not without challenges and creating a society where we ‘enable’ people to leverage their talents and live without fear & stigma is key.

What is it like living with Hearing Loss?

As I stood in a crowded Euston station last Tuesday evening, I heard that familiar beep beep beep of dying batteries that those of us who are dependant on bilateral hearing aids will all relate to. My world was suddenly enveloped with an indistinguishable muffle of very low-level noise, with speech no longer distinguishable. There can be something deeply calming about suddenly being absorbed in cotton wool, stepping away from that synthetic, sometimes squeaky noise hearing aids generate and all the commotion of a busy station. However, then the panic arises as I can no longer sense where I am amongst the crowd, I can’t hear that person about to bump into me from behind, people annoyed at me as I didn’t hear their ‘excuse me’ and you can literally be ‘knocked off balance’.

Then there is the fear of navigating the train station pharmacy to see if I can purchase batteries, knowing if the shop assistant asks me something, I won’t be able to hear them-no matter how hard I try- and I’ll end up eventually having to ‘fake it’, pretending I’ve heard as it is so awkward to ask them to repeat it again and I have no idea what I’ve just smiled and agreed to (and by the way this often happens when my hearing aids are working too, especially since everybody started wearing masks). It also reminds me of the time I was run down in a supermarket carpark because I didn’t hear someone start up their engine, or the sleepless nights with the baby monitor by my ear terrified I might not hear my newborn wake, even though she was sleeping in the same room. This is my ‘everyday’ and it is no surprise to me how without the right support and empathy that Deafness and hearing loss can be very isolating and leave people scared to leave the safety of their home.

What Can We Do?

The UK Council for Deafness have a whole host of tips and advice on how to support people living with Deafness and Hearing Impairment that you can read here. Here are my 5 top tips that I wish someone had told me, I had been confident enough to speak up about or wish my colleagues had known early on in my career:

  1. Technology. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of assistive technology as an enabler. Don’t struggle on without exploring all the options out there. Don’t delay in getting hearing aids if these would be useful for you, they will be transformative-it is not until you get them you realise how much of your brain power was wasted just trying to decipher what people are saying. Amplified desk-phones and speaker phones in conference rooms can be very helpful too. You can also couple your hearing aids to a small microphone that you can place in proximity to a speaker at a conference table. I personally have downloaded a speech to text app. on my phone as back-up too. Assistive technology is evolving all the time, from vibrating fire alarms to auto-text software. Workplaces need to assess the individual need and support investing in technology to enable their staff with hearing impairment. If based in the UK, Access to Work can support companies in this assessment, provide grants and make suggestions on what technology and adjustments may be helpful.
  2. Don’t Phone Me. You know what drives me mad, when companies have these huge cultural drives where they think it is cool to encourage people to ‘pick up the phone’. This might work for the majority of people, but not for those of us who are hard of hearing. Either stop by my desk so I can lip-read while you are talking to me or even Zoom me as I can still see your lips. And for very little extra cost did you know that you can purchase auto-text for Zoom calls that can be switched on or off by choice (thanks to Mike Dixon from the Healthcare Communications Association for that tip!). And if it is really important that I know all the detail, drop me an e-mail or if you want something more informal you can find me on WhatsApp. Or MSTeams.
  3. Offer Up Your Seat. I am at a stage of life now where I feel comfortable being open about my hearing impairment and asking people to move so that I can take a position in the room where I can actually both hear better and see the lips of people. However, that wasn’t always the case. If we are at the side or back of a room then there really is no point in us being in the room at all. In round table meetings we need to be in a central seating position where we can see the lips of everyone around the whole table. If listening to a speaker, if we can’t see their lips we are unlikely to get the definition we need to hear, so we need to be near the front. Offer up your seat to your hearing-impaired colleague as it hard for them to ask you to move. And one more thing we cannot hear you if you all talk at once, take turns, it’s actually the polite thing to do anyway.
  4. Repeat the Question Another tip is if you are giving a presentation and there are questions from the audience, repeat the question before you answer. Equally, if you are facilitating a panel or chairing a presentation session where you have someone with hearing-impairment participating, repeat the question from the audience for them.
  5. Catch my Attention & Don’t Cover your Lips. Alert Alert Alert if you are behind me or I haven’t noticed you the chances are I can’t hear you. Tap me on the shoulder lightly, catch my attention or even better just come around the front of where I am so I can fully see you want to talk to me. And don’t cover your lips-I need to see them to distinguish those beginnings and ends of words. I had one colleague where every time I asked her to repeat what she had said she found yet another way of covering her lips- behind a briefcase, piece of paper, standing in a shadow or looking the other way, it was so frustrating as I always ended up just giving up asking her to repeat herself.

Finally, my one piece of advice I would give to anyone else out there is to remember it is not just about Deafness and Hearing Impairment ‘awareness’ but also about ‘inclusion & acceptance’. The person is not ‘disabled’ but the environment can be ‘disabling’ (ask yourself how well a hearing person would cope in a room full of people chatting away in sign language). If you are hearing impaired do not be afraid to ask for what you need in order to contribute fully in your job, follow your dreams and believe in yourself. For people supporting someone in the workplace, every person’s need is different, so ask the person with hearing impairment themselves what might help, understand the challenges they may be having in the workplace and co-create solutions to resolve these.

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