I wrote an article for MyPlus Consulting in 2017. I had been a trainee for two years previously and had only relatively recently qualified as a solicitor at a Magic Circle firm, Slaughter and May. A lot has happened since then, not least a global pandemic. I’ve decided to write an updated article to share my experiences now as an associate at Slaughter and May at the more senior end of the spectrum. The good news is that managing a disability in a professional context is definitely something that has got much easier for me with time.
I’m deaf in my left ear which makes my world that bit more unbalanced. It’s a condition which was diagnosed at primary school and which I have learned to manage over time with varying amounts of technological assistance along the way. It’s a learning process that continues as new technologies develop. I wanted to write this article because a client told me he had Googled me and the previous incarnation of this article popped up. That made me think that someone else who might not know me but who might get something out of reading the article might read it too. When I went back to read the original article again, it struck me just how much has changed over five years. It’s high time I share how I manage my disability now in the post-Covid, hybrid world.
When we moved abruptly to remote working and having every conversation on Microsoft Teams or Zoom, things suddenly got quite a lot easier for me, at least from a communications perspective. Gone were the large meeting rooms filled with people where I would struggle to see who was speaking at the other end of the table. These were replaced by videos where every word was clearly enunciated, facing me and I could have my headphones as loud as I wanted. We’re fortunate in that we have offices we share with one other person so now everyone is back in the office most of the week, it’s easy to close the door and not have background noise. That said, part of building your career is being adaptable and when I went on client secondment before the pandemic, I was in an open plan office. Like everything, there was a way through. My desk was where I was best able to hear the rest of the team and I got used to the background noise over time to the point where I didn’t even think about it.
However, for every little thing which became easier, something else became more difficult. Interacting with people wearing masks was almost impossible. A lot of the time, I had to guess what I was being told and hope for the best. That’s fine at the supermarket till but really not great in a professional context. Even now when we are back to socialising and mixing at work, I find myself having to concentrate to hear what is being said in a noisy environment. It’s a skill that got lost in the pandemic and although I know it will improve again, it is certainly something which I need to work at.
When I first started at the firm as a trainee, it was not always easy to be confident and say “I am going to sit here”. I would get to meetings early instead – a workaround which worked for me. That way, I could sit at the right (in both senses of the word) side. Now, when there are in person meetings, I find myself often near the centre, leading parts of the meeting and it does help when you can see everyone. I also am much more used to talking about my hearing problems at work. Each time I have a new trainee as part of the rotation, I explain my hearing loss and what it means. It has become completely normalised.
The firm has been really supportive and keen to offer help in any way they can, from regular check-ins with HR to workplace assessments to funding technological solutions. It’s important not to assume that just because a recruitment process is competitive, it means you can’t be open about your disability. One of the things I wrote about in the original article was that “normal” for me meant having my hearing loss so speaking about it was not something I was really used to. I’m pleased I stepped outside my comfort zone and I did. My experience is that the HR team is sensitive and experienced in managing hidden disabilities. Resilience is an important skill in our line of work and having a hidden disability is a real-life example of that.
In the original article, I wrote about the value of determination. I would say to anyone who is at an early stage of their career that a hidden disability is a challenge but with support, my experience has been that it has not held me back.