By Robyn Mead, Litigation Specialist at Enterprise
I have a bi-lateral hearing loss and have worn two hearing aids since the age of 3, the age when my parents realised that I was born deaf. I have a cognitive hearing loss, which affects my reading, writing and speech skills (not to mention my balance!) and I am registered as disabled. Though I read and write slightly slower than others, I can assure you that the quality of work I produce is no less. Growing up, I worked hard through 13 years of speech therapy and received lots of help, in the form of note takers, throughout my education.
I have worked at Enterprise since leaving university, for just over 5 years now, in a variety of roles and I’d like to share how I was able to adapt and manage my deafness throughout these changes in my career. My employment with ERAC came by way of an accident. I graduated from university in the summer of 2011, whilst the UK was still in a recession and the only way I was able to find employment was through a temp agency.
What I found was that my deafness, coupled with a recession, made it very hard to find work. Getting interviews was not a problem, but convincing prospective employers during interviews that my deafness would not affect my ability or work ethic was a lot harder. These days, more employers are becoming disability-confident and aware of the unique strengths that disabled graduates bring to the workforce. However back then, I experienced a lot indirect and unintentional discrimination as prospective employers knew less about accommodating my disability and were less willing to take me on when they had the option of employing a graduate with similar qualifications and no disability. I wish I had known about organisations like MyPlus Students’ Club who specialise in helping young people with disabilities find progressive employers who are open to supporting them when I was graduating!
Anyway, back to my career journey. The temp agency sent me to Enterprise and shortly after I was told by management that there was a permanent role going in the team I was already working in. I jumped at the chance of getting permanent and stable employment.
I had worked in the admin team for around 2 ½ years and when I applied, I got a promotion to the non-fault litigation team in the spring of 2014. My role in the litigation team has varied widely and has changed several times in the last couple of years.
Through each change in my role, I have had to learn to adapt quickly. For example, in my current role as litigation specialist, I have to liaise constantly with our solicitors and other departments within Enterprise. My role has been adapted by the management team so I deal with a solicitor company who know to only contact me by email, as I am not able to use a phone.
I have learnt over the years to be very open about the nature of my disability, particularly with my management. If the management team do not know anything about the effects of being deaf in the workplace, then how can they assist you? Many people are unaware of the ways in which individuals with a disability have to adjust and adapt their ways of working in everyday life. When I first started, I was very clear about what I could and could not do under ordinary circumstances. For example, I cannot use the phone at all, even a specially modified one, in a busy office environment. There are around 100 people on my floor and this creates a lot of background noise, for example, chat between colleagues, phones ringing/conversations and printers. This means I can virtually hear nothing in the office over the background noise.
With each management change, I made my direct line manager aware that I rely on lip-reading, which I can do fluently, body language and facial expressions to communicate effectively with my colleagues. My team members are also aware that they need to face me when chatting so I can understand what they are saying.
If I have an upcoming meeting or training session at work I try to get a copy of the PowerPoint presentation or notes/transcript before /after the event so I know what was said in the meeting. Meetings are a regular occurrence at Enterprise. As I am sure you are aware, lip reading several people at the same time is impossible!
I have been very lucky that my current and past managers over the last 5 years have been very accommodating and understanding in how I deal with my deafness at work. Naturally, I am quite a shy person so learning to be assertive about my disability was a struggle at first, especially as many of my colleagues did not realise that I was deaf as my long hair tends to cover the hearing aids. However, I believe that being open to requesting what you need is the first step to success in the workplace.
When looking for work after graduating college or university, my advice to you would be to inform prospective employers about your deafness or disability in your application. Do not focus on the negatives and what the disability prevents you from doing, instead you can be proactive in requesting adjustments that help you work better. For example, explain that you cannot use a phone, but ask if everything in your role can be done by email only. Being honest about my disability was key in getting promoted. I talked to the head of the department, before applying, and explained that I had all the necessary skills but that I could not use a phone; could the role be fulfilled by using just email and letters, to which the manager confirmed it could. I understand that some people are naturally shy or do not want their disability to define them and the choices they make, but being open with your employers is so important to enjoy opportunities and success in the workplace. I have found that most managers appreciate the openness and it saves you from awkward conversations when it comes to group training and meetings.
I hope this blog has demonstrated to you that adapting to change and achieving success is possible when you are open about your disability. I wish you all the success in whatever career you choose after graduating!