[This article was updated in July 2022]
My name’s Tamara, and I work for a corporate business as a digital marketing manager. To the human eye, my typical working week is just the same as that of many other office workers today. I am navigating the highs and lows of hybrid working, spending most of my working day staring at a screen, attending lots of online meetings, and using office visits to catch up with my colleagues and get to grips with the new coffee machine.
So far, so normal.
But in truth, my working week is anything but ‘normal’. The reason for this is that I’m deaf – or more technically, hard of hearing (HoH). I have a moderate-to-severe level of hearing loss so 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 can be 10 times worse. Some of the thoughts that run 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 I be able to do my job properly”; “Will the support I need be available and will my colleagues be understanding?”
All of these questions highlight just some of the challenges I face being deaf in the workplace. And while many can be very tiring and overwhelming at times, I have found ways to manage them and ask for more support.
Tiring online meetings
Recent developments mean that working remotely and doing everything online is now commonplace. For someone with deafness, online calls can be a strain and having lots of them throughout the day can be very tiring. Not only is it much more difficult to lip read, there’s often an issue of sound clarity – especially when some of the team are in the office using a meeting room with a using a universal speaker rather than individual headsets. As a result it can be a constant battle to try and stay alert and focused on day to day calls, and often I find myself zoning out easily and missing important points as a result of listening fatigue.
Furthermore, being hard of hearing means I rely more on people’s body language and facial expressions to understand what they are communicating to me, but this is pretty much impossible on virtual meetings when all you see are people’s faces. And that’s if your colleagues are willing to have their cameras turned on and angled to show a clear view of their face.
The perils of an open plan office
Working in a large open plan office, the difficulties of being deaf are amplified. Even though it’s nice to be able to spend time in person with my colleagues, the office brings obstacles that no normal hearing person would ever even have to consider.
Like background noise for example. It can be very difficult 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 tricky when there’s lots going on in the background.
Other perils of the office include colleagues trying to to talk to me from a distance and/or without engaging with me first. Face to face communication is so important for people with deafness, and it’s unlikely I will hear much if someone isn’t given me their full attention (and vice versa). This is particularly problematic if it’s about a topic of high importance or something complicated, which I need to spend time interpreting as well as what is actually being said. I often have to ask people to repeat themselves, which can be frustrating for them, but even more so for me because I’m so worried I’ll miss important details.
Using the phone is also challenging. I have an amplifier fitted but I always break out in a sweat fearing having to talk to someone I am unable to see.
Missing out of office ‘chit chat’
A key part of office working is the small talk and 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 quietly-spoken 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 I’ve done so, I’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 in joining the debate, and there have been times when I wonder whether it’s resulted in me losing out on being assigned certain projects and tasks.
Career uncertainty and feeling insecure
While generally I am pretty confident and cope well with my hearing loss, I do experience feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, embarrassment, confusion, and fear that it could mean I miss out on important career opportunities. Especially if one day I have a cochlea implant fitted, which can be a life-changing operation and a big readjustment – requiring time out from work.
There’s also other little things that can add to the stress of having a hearing loss in the modern workplace, 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 as with all technology, they can be unpredictable. This can leave me feeling vulnerable – especially when I’m in the office. If a hearing aid plays I’ll sneak to the loos where I wrestle with it, squeezing it into my ear and adjusting it several times to achieve a level of comfort that is, as many 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.’
How I’m learning to manage these challenges
I first wrote this blog seven years ago when I was 25 and still in the early days of living with a diagnosed hearing loss and hearing aids. While my hearing has worsened slightly since then, fortunately my attitude towards it has improved and this has made it a lot easier for me to manage the challenges it brings – especially in the workplace.
One particularly poignant extract from my 2016 blog is: 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.
Nowadays I am much more proactive in telling people about my hearing loss straight away. For example, when I start a new role or project, I will set up 121 meetings as a platform to introduce myself and give my colleagues a heads up. Writing about my hearing loss has also been beneficial, and I now use my CV and LinkedIn profile to advertise my written works so employers can read them and find out about my condition before and/or during the application process. I’ll also send the links to my colleagues when they’re interested in finding out more.
Day to day, I try to be really open with my manager and close colleagues, so that when I need some time out, or need them to follow up with notes after a call, I feel less of a nuisance doing so. I definitely feel far less overwhelmed by the day to day challenges and more comfortable in asking for support knowing I’ve taken the time to educate my team. This education needs to be resurfaced regularly, and I still struggle sometimes to admit to my difficulties and tell people that I am struggling to hear in meetings, but it’s true that adversity makes you stronger! Practice does make perfect.
A call for improved deaf awareness
There’s still a great need for more deaf awareness training in the workplace. Deaf awareness skills are severely lacking in businesses today, which it not unsurprising 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. Yet, I am grateful I have a rewarding job, and it’s one that I love and feel I can progress in – alongside coworkers who I feel supported by. Along the way, I am learning to be more assertive and not let things get to me as much, but it’s an ongoing uphill struggle.
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…?
Resources for managing deafness in the workplace
Enjoy some of our other articles about navigating deafness:
- 5 tips for working with a BSL Interpreter
- Advice from a deaf manager
- ELREM and Access to Work advice
- Job hunting tips
- An Employers Guide to Supporting Deaf Workers – Action on Hearing Loss
Article Updated in July 2022
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