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Uncovering Hidden Disabilities

  November 15, 2016   

If you had a hidden disability would you tell your employer?

You may think it is better not to mention it when applying for or accepting a job in case you put yourself at a disadvantage. However, my employer and my colleagues have been overwhelmingly supportive of my hidden disability and the support I have received has meant I am able to perform my job to the best of my ability.

I was born with a left ear that doesn’t function at all. In fact, medically, I am (flatteringly) described as having a “dead ear”. When I was at primary school, the teachers used to think I was not concentrating, when in reality I simply could not hear them. As I got older, I found that my right ear began to compensate to a certain extent but social situations were very difficult and I often felt left out of conversations.

At times I felt very isolated.

Slaughter and May was the only city law firm I applied to. I felt that their application process was much more orientated towards considering me as an individual. When I was offered a trainee role, I was concerned that I would struggle to hear what was going on in meetings or that I would always be left watching rather than participating in conversations during post-work Friday drinks. Thankfully, that has not been the case.

Life in the workplace.

In my first few weeks at the firm, I sat down with HR and talked about the issues I faced or the issues I expected I would face during my time as a trainee. One thing that was really difficult at the beginning was anticipating what I would be doing as a trainee. The work is very varied and can be different depending on the department you are in as we have six monthly rotations. Also, unlike other jobs where you work in a specific team, we can work with a wide variety of people across the firm at any one time. This means you do have a shorter time frame in which to build up trust with your colleagues. I decided that it would be helpful to prepare a short paragraph which summarises my hearing loss and how it impacts me. That paragraph could then be shared by HR with those people I would be working for in advance of moving to a new department.

This was very helpful as it avoided the dilemma of when to have “the chat”.

It is much more comfortable to bring up my hearing loss in a more natural context (i.e. “I’m just going to sit here so I can hear better”) rather than feeling under pressure to discuss it on the first day in a new department. It was also really useful for me to write that paragraph as it made me focus on what I felt I should tell my colleagues, rather than leave it to circumstances which may or may not arise.

The workplace assessment.

Hidden disabilities can be difficult to manage in the workplace because those with them are not necessarily used to support. For example, when I was at university, I did not receive additional support because I could sit at the front of lectures. However, when I started work, things changed. I spend time on long phone calls which require me to wear a headset so it is easier for me to write and in meetings, there are not normally any microphones. When I started at Slaughter and May, I was clueless about what might be available to me.

After the workplace assessment I felt much better equipped to ask for support which I had not initially considered.

If I am attending long meetings, I can have a notetaker and suggest regular breaks. I am also much more aware of the technological assistance that is available if my hearing deteriorates in the future. With a hidden disability, your colleagues are more likely to forget that you have it. You may have told them that you need to sit in a certain seat and the next day they sit there themselves. Every time this has happened to me, all that is required is a gentle reminder and the person has been very apologetic.

At the end of the day, we are all human and have a lot going on. Please don’t take it personally!

An on-going process.

Another thing I have learned is that talking with HR needs to be an on-going process. As you progress in any role, you will learn new skills and encounter different situations and so the support you require will vary. In addition, technology is developing so fast you could be missing out if you do not review what is available on a regular basis. Confidence does not come naturally to me and I’m sure my disability has impacted that. However, as your career develops, you do start to become more sure of yourself and familiar with the challenges (disability and non-disability related) that you face on a daily basis.

It is important to remember that it is in everyone’s interest that you perform as best as you can.

I have always been determined that my disability would not stop me from achieving what I want to achieve and that determination is not going to stop any time soon.

*The author of this article wished to remain anonymous and the image shows two models.

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