My name’s Tamara, I’m 25, living and working in London. To the human eye, my typical working day is just the same as every other office worker in London. Sure enough, I face the same challenges and enjoy the same quirks that working in an office can bring – the same lengthy meetings, eight hours a day glued to a screen, catching up with coworkers in the kitchen and sharing a joke or two about who stuffed all the biscuits.
So far, so normal.
But in truth, my working day is anything but ‘normal’. The reason for this is that I’m deaf – or more technically, hard of hearing (HoH) – but with a moderate level of hearing loss, I certainly fall into the category of ‘deafness’. Wearing hearing aids and having to make an unnaturally forced effort to communicate with people every minute of the day makes the working environment even more of a minefield for me – in so many shapes and forms. For example, for most people a new job brings feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, but for me this is 10 times worse. Some of the thoughts running through my head include: “How do I tell my prospective employer that I am deaf?” “Will it affect how employable I am?” “How do I approach the matter with my colleagues if I get the job?” “How will I cope in meetings?” “Will the support I need be available and will people be understanding?”
The perils of an open plan office
All of these questions and more are just some of the challenges I face when it comes to employment – not to mention the ones I have to deal with on a daily basis once I’m actually working. As an employee in a large open plan office, the difficulties of being deaf are amplified, and my day is peppered with obstacles that no normal hearing person would ever even have to consider. Like background noise for example! Oh the frustration of trying to grasp what my softly spoken manager is saying whilst my colleague pounds fiercely at her keyboard beside me. This may seem very trivial, but background noise is impenetrable for people with hearing aids and cuts straight through everything else – making face to face conversation difficult.
Other perils of the office include colleagues trying to say something to you whilst they’re looking in the other direction or staring down at their desk. It’s pretty much guaranteed that if I haven’t been given their full attention (and vice versa) I will have missed at least 30% of what they’ve said. This is particularly problematic if it’s something of high importance, or something complicated. I often have to ask them to repeat themselves, which is clearly frustrating for them, but even more so for me because I’m so worried I’ll miss something again.
There’s also the incredibly frustrating issue of ‘office chit chat’ which I am rarely a part of because I can’t actually hear what’s being said. Even with my closest workmates (sat literally opposite and diagonal to me on their respective desks) I can’t engage or tune into conversation naturally, and have to strain my neck or stand up to be able to keep up – usually through lipreading. But this is not the ‘etiquette’ of office chit chat, which is generally a mix of passing comments that are not meant to draw too much attention. Having to stand up or make an obvious effort to hear what’s being said is rather unnatural, and by the time you’ve done so, you’ve missed most of the conversation already! Because of this it’s really easy to feel left out. I sometimes worry my colleagues think I’m simply not interested in chatting to them or sharing ideas, and there have been times when I wonder whether it’s resulted in me losing out on being assigned certain projects and tasks.
Meetings tend to be an easier point of communication for me and I encourage these as much as possible so I can guarantee I have someone’s full attention in a quieter environment. I use this time to ask as many questions as I can and share ideas – hopefully reassuring my colleagues and manager that I am fully engaged, committed and part of the team. What I do tend to avoid is speaking directly about my deafness, which is completely and utterly a failure on my part, because how are my colleagues able to help and support me if I don’t express my feelings and how I may be struggling? Inner insecurities plague me, so I prefer not to mention my hearing difficulties straight out. My team and heads are all aware of my hearing loss and that I wear hearing aids, but as with any disability, education and awareness is key to acceptance, and this needs to be reiterated time and time again for it to be effective. The reality though, is that it’s easier said than done.
Luckily my employer and colleagues are really understanding and offer support as much as they can, and I guess this does make things somewhat easier. But all the secrecy, feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, confusion, and constant worry that I’m missing out on important career opportunities because of my hearing loss, are incredibly stressful, undermining and confidence-shaking. There’s also other little things that can add to the stress of it all, such as having to run to the privacy of the loos whenever my hearing aid starts squeaking or playing up. Most of the time they’re fine, but I’ve recently had a new mould fitted and it’s proving to be a bloody nuisance. I often have to disappear off into the toilet where I wrestle with my aid, squeezing it into my ear and adjusting it several times to achieve a level of comfort that is, as many of us hearing aid-wearers may describe as, “comfortable enough that it’s not too noticeable and doesn’t thud furiously behind your ear when you walk.” Yes, it’s complicated.
Other obstacles of the office environment include using the phone (I have an amplifier fitted but there’s never a time when using the phone doesn’t make me break out in a sweat with the stress of having to talk to someone I can’t lipread). Mumblers are my pet peeve and coworkers who insist on talking to me from across the office, rather than coming over to my desk, make me want to cry a little inside. Of course it would be far easier if I was more assertive, but any form of this usually falls on deaf ears anyway (excuse the pun). But it’s not surprising that people around me forget I need extra help because I am not obviously disabled. I wear my hair down to cover my aids and generally I seem like any ‘normal’ hearing person, so I can’t blame them for treating me like this (which, if truth be told, is completely and utterly how I want to be treated).
A call for improved deaf awareness
There’s a great need for more deaf awareness training in the workplace. Deaf awareness skills are severely lacking in businesses today, which I guess is understandable considering very few people will ever actually work alongside a deaf person. But this in itself is a worrying fact, and it’s a chicken and egg situation: without deaf awareness training it’s less likely a deaf person will be employed by a company, but if a deaf person isn’t employed by a company, there’s little chance that the company will learn the basics of deaf awareness. Catch 22.
With three out of four people with hearing loss feeling their employment opportunities are more limited than their hearing peers (according to a report from Action on Hearing Loss), the challenges of the workplace are still as great as ever for people with deafness – despite the many technological devices we can use today. The day to day difficulties I face as an employee in a large, modern business are just the tip of the iceberg. At least I have a job, and it’s one that I love and feel I can progress in – alongside coworkers who I can be more open with about my difficulties. Along the way I need to learn to be more assertive and not let things get to me as much, but there’s no doubt it will be a roller coaster of emotions and challenging twists and turns. Ultimately, the perils of the open office working environment are just another part of my daily routine – just as they are for someone who has a different kind of disability or health condition. But what if it could be possible to remove them altogether…?
At Deaf Unity we’re on a mission to break down the barriers deaf and HoH people face in the workplace. Our recent Deaf and Disabilities Careers Fair 2016 was a fantastic success and connected leading employers with deaf and disabled job seekers in an accessible environment. We’re looking towards hosting lots of new and exciting projects to help people in the deaf community succeed in the world of work. Watch this space!