As part of Deaf Awareness Week 2021, Juliana Coelho discusses her experience of hearing loss and the barriers hearing impaired people face every day. Vicki Chalker and David Kenyon provide commentary on the piece discussing how important it is we consider the difficulties we face, where to find key resources, and how we can promote a more inclusive workplace and society.
Can you hear me?
Life throws challenges at you, doesn’t it? They slowly creep in and suddenly you realise that things are a bit trickier than before. This happened to me: I slowly started losing my hearing, after giving birth to my second child. It was very subtle to start with, first not being able to hear my husband speaking to me (selective hearing I thought), then my new-born baby crying upstairs – all the while I was oblivious. I even questioned myself – what is going on?
Then a few months later at work I started noticing that I couldn’t hear people very well, especially when they spoke quietly not to call attention to themselves or not disturb others in an open plan office and ended up missing or misinterpreting important information that was being discussed. Even my GP was puzzled as I could chat easily with him but requested a hearing test anyway and voilà, I had lost about 40% of my hearing due to otosclerosis, the worst loss for low tone sounds (which explains why I could not hear my husband).
I have had a journey with hearing aids, and believe me, it was intense. I also had two surgeries to replace the stapes bones (inner ear bones) with protheses and I am glad to say that I have recovered most of my hearing. I can hear just below the average speech level and my hearing aids are now in the back of my wardrobe. I’ve learned through this journey that we take many things for granted our senses especially! Whilst you don’t want to advertise to the world that you cannot hear very well, or even call it a disability, you find yourself having to do so as people may misinterpret you or you end up making wrong assumptions from conversations – both in the work environment and with friends.
It isn’t all bad though, I did learn a new skill: lip reading, it is amazing how one adapts. Whilst wearing masks help protect us from COVID transmission, they make it harder for those who cannot hear very well, and also rely on lip reading – so please:
- Look out for anyone who may be struggling a bit more than normal in your workplace.
- Be aware of the mask exemptions when talking to a deaf or hearing-impaired person.
- Make sure you speak clearly.
- Face the person you are talking to.
- Find somewhere quiet to speak as loud background noise makes hearing more difficult.
- Use video during calls and virtual meetings is important as this provide better accessibility for lipreaders
- Enable those who need assistance to sit next to the speaker in meetings or workshops so they can hear better, and lip read.
- When chairing, when someone else is speaking look at them as a clue for others to know where to look to lip read.
A quiet space in the office and the availability of speakers to join online meetings were a life saver for me as it is very tricky to wear headphones with hearing aids – managers have a vital role in supporting their staff with additional needs and I have been lucky to have had supported throughout my hearing loss journey.
And for those who struggle with hearing, do not feel afraid to speak up! You may find that there are inclusion networks at your workplace – they are a friendly bunch and they are there to support you!
Commentary by Vicki Chalker, Chair of the GSE Diversity and Inclusion Action Group (DIAG)
This article by Juliana highlights several things we can all do to help those of us with hearing difficulties: notice and take an interest in the people around you in case they need support, be considerate when planning office layouts, meeting room selection, configuration of people in meetings and the technology available to your team. Speak to individuals with hearing difficulties by facing them when you can, considering the mask-exemptions for those talking to persons who rely on lip reading. You could even consider a face mask with clear sections to help with lip reading, but most importantly you can help by facing others who are talking. Consider your recruitment process, if on a virtual meeting keep your camera on so others can see you speak.
We do not all need to re-invent the way forward each time – many people suffer with hearing loss or tinnitus and networks exist in many Government Departments which can offer both support to individuals and managers, with signposting and advice (PHE has an enable network and there is a cross-Government Deaf and Hard of Hearing network). The GSE team have a voluntary disabilities network and welcome new members (contact Chair David Kenyon email@example.com). The Royal National Institute for Deaf People RNID - National hearing loss charity is also a great source of information with the Louder than Words initiative (Louder than Words - Home) helping organisations to be more accessible for those with hearing loss. Finally, speak to your team and learn together, we should all be embracing everything we can to assist more people with disabilities to flourish in STEM careers in government, like Juliana.
Thank you Juliana for sharing your story! The GSE community is privileged by your open honest real-life experience. If others reading this would also like to contribute their experience to help others learn please do get in touch.
Commentary by David Kenyon, Chair of the GSE Disability Working Group (DWG)
I am so grateful to Juliana for sharing what must have been, at times, a distressing journey so openly. It eloquently highlights the many challenges that she and others face daily, and the often-simple interventions that can make such a difference. Having managed someone with profound hearing loss, communication is key to this and even during the interview small considerations such as ensuring the candidate can clearly see your face for lipreading helps to level the playing field. Subsequently, interventions such as where their desk is in the office or that they can always sit in a certain place at lab meetings enable full engagement in team discussions.
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