I've been asked a few times about working in a library setting as someone who is deaf. So I thought I’d blog my own experiences and how I manage working in an environment that relies on excellent communication skills.
I was born 13 weeks premature. The prognosis for me wasn't great. I was one of only two extremely pre-term babies born at this particular hospital in 1976 who survived. Once I’d done that bit, I wasn't expected to reach 2 years and expectations for my development continued to be low. I was monitored as part of a research project until I was 5 years old, at which point my parents pulled out of the study amid concerns about the negative impact the study (and attitude of the researchers) had on the family.
Although there were other health and developmental problems that had been identified, I wasn't diagnosed as deaf until I reached nursery school. Initial concerns that I had a learning disability turned out to be an inability to hear. Nursery workers picked up on the fact that I was unresponsive in particular situations and my speech was describes as ‘curious’. I seemed to simply skip over particular sounds. Most noticeable was my cuddly toy, Miss Mouse. Well that’s what everyone else called her. I called her ‘Mi Mow’. An investigation led to the discovery that I was missing a small bone in my ear, which meant that I was high-frequency deaf. (In my medical notes, it is written ‘Missing bone means she is quite literally an air-head’. I'm very grateful that changes to the legislation means we now have access to our medical records and Doctors are a little more thoughtful about the notes they make!) It became clearer why I appeared to ignore particular sounds and missed them out of my speech altogether. Speech therapy at both Primary and Secondary school made a positive difference. I have a palatal lisp, and there are some words that I just can’t say, but the difficulty is mostly hidden. Just don’t ask me to say the words ‘saxophonist’ or ‘physalis’!
Linking up with another research study in the early 90’s, I was the first person in the area to receive a hearing aid specifically developed for high-frequency hearing loss*, rather than volume hearing loss. The design of the moulded hearing aid meant I lost some lower frequencies as well, which were then re-amplified. It meant if I was walking down the street and a lorry passed by, I shot up a lamppost. The world suddenly started hissing like snakes at me. It was like listening to a badly tuned radio. I absolutely hated wearing aids – partly because I already wore glasses, but also because no-one really prepared me for what a fully hearing world would be like. It was too noisy. I moved down to one aid, and then abandoned them altogether, deciding I was much happier in a quieter world. At school, I received little support. I sat at the front of the class, was visited once a year by a support worker who pushed her face too close to mine and reminded me to sit at the front of the class. Generally, I learned to watch what others were doing and follow their lead. Teachers complained that I was ‘slow to respond’ and failed to associate it with my deafness, despite reminders.
Working in public libraries
I started working in public libraries when I was 23. Oddly, the first thing anyone said to me about this was 'How will you hear what people are whispering?' It didn't occur to me that it would be a barrier to working in a library.
Starting to work on the circulation desk in a busy public library, I discovered that yes, not being able to hear people whisper their queries at me was a problem. Sometimes I just couldn't lip read them (limited lip movements, hand in front of mouth, facial hair, or just plain lack of ability on my part!) I dealt with this in two ways - firstly by letting people know that they didn't need to whisper (It wasn't a 'quiet' reference library, it was a very noisy public library), and secondly by letting people know that if it was something they wanted to discuss privately, that we could move away from the desk and have the conversation elsewhere. I could also refer them to another colleague where one was available. I spent one year working in a public-facing role, and never encountered a problem.
I moved to an academic library where I supported disabled students, administered inter-lending and worked on circulation desks. Higher Education was geared up for inclusivity. For the first time I was asked whether there were any adaptations that could be made to ensure I was able to do my job to the best of my ability. We considered whether any adaptations were required (a visual fire alarm for example), and it was the first time I noticed that I was seen as a potential risk. My biggest problem was using a phone in a noisy, open plan office where I found it difficult to hear, but I rarely had to answer a phone, so the issue was avoided. Other than difficulty receiving phonecalls, there were no impacts on my ability to do the job. We agreed that if I couldn't hear someone on the phone, I could either ask another member of staff to take the call, or ask the person to email their query where appropriate and pick it up from there.
I was given a line-manager who had recently been on disability awareness training. During a 1:1, she suddenly realised she was sat in front of a window. With her face in shadow, I was unable to lip-read and although I was having difficulty hearing her, I hadn’t said anything. She suddenly exclaimed, pushed her feet off the wall, her swivel chair wheeling across the room mid-sentence with me turning 180 degrees to follow her. We were both amused at how ridiculous it looked. She sent me on an assertiveness course, and reminded me I needed to be honest with people and tell them what I needed. I started being more vocal about my deafness, and found my BSL skills being called upon when supporting and directing deaf students in the library.
My next move proved to be more challenging. I joined a workplace library that was moving online to provide a library service at a distance. During the interview, I asked to switch seats so that I wasn't facing the interview panel with a window behind them. I explained why I was doing this, and the panel were visibly surprised. The government sector wasn't known for its inclusivity but my hearing wasn’t explored as a potential issue.
As my job evolved and I accepted a promotion, I took on increasing responsibility which proved to be a challenge to my hearing abilities – but which have not yet been a challenge to either my employer or the people I support. As I've got older, added more wrinkles and the odd grey hair, my hearing levels have also decreased. The physical library also disappeared, and it meant I was much more reliant on using a phone and communicating at a distance. I also started leading and facilitating workshops, both face-to-face and online. I've learned to be honest, and to use a little humour and creativity when facing some of the challenges.
Navigating office spaces
The idea of working in a quiet back-office vanished as the organisation moved to hot-desk working environment. My treasured quiet office was lost in favour of a noisy, open-plan one. Whilst there are designated ‘quiet spaces’, use of telephones are banned in them. I do two things:
1. Book an individual meeting room if I need to make / receive planned phone calls or present training online. Ambient noise means my hearing deteriorates, particularly when using a telephone, so working in a quiet space helps.
2. Find a desk where I'm away from known noisy colleagues, and sat where I can see people approach (I’m well-known for my ability to leap out of my chair and hit the ceiling when someone approaches from behind and I’m totally unaware they are there). Colleagues have learned to politely let me know they are approaching and I also have a mirror on my monitor so I can see what’s going on behind me. Whilst it’s often entertaining to visibly leap in fright from my seat, it doesn’t have the air of professionalism I'm going for.
Using a phone
Our traditional desk telephones are being phased out by USB VOIP headsets. I answer enquiries via conference calls and act as front-line support for colleagues needing guidance and accessing services. I use a headset with a double-cup in an attempt to block out ambient noise and ensure I receive sound through both earphones, using an amplifier.
I’m honest and let colleagues know if I can’t hear them. This usually happens with female voices – they tend to be higher pitched and sometimes beyond my range. Asking them to use Instant Messaging or email me instead hasn’t yet been a problem, particularly if they are calling with a complex scientific query. Recently, someone rang and asked for in-depth research on "female snail penises". An unexpected phrase with no context and full of the sounds I can’t hear. Three repeats later, I gave up and asked them to email me. Luckily, they saw the funny side! Asking people to use a phonetic alphabet to spell family names often occurs in some interesting word choices if they are not familiar with the NATO alphabet!
We’re just starting to implement video phone. Bad news for those that like working from home in their pyjamas. But in terms of accessibility, it has the potential to increase my ability to make and receive calls easily.
When I know a colleague is in the same building, I always opt to go and speak to them face-to-face, rather than email in the first instance. It gets me out from behind my desk, some exercise walking up and down the stairs and improves my relationship with peers. It’s still seen as unusual though, with most people preferring to use a phone in an attempt to reduce electronic communications.
Presenting training online
Presenting online needs a bit of planning, but when I'm familiar with the subject, I'm confident that I can manage it. I encourage online etiquette to increase accessibility for anyone joining the call. Telephone and video conferencing have been in our organisation for over five years, but there’s still some bad practice out there. If I'm leading it, I:
- Turn off announcements. If someone is going to be late, they can arrive quietly.
- Ask people to mute their phones so background noise is reduced. Don’t be that person typing away in the background when you’re not on mute. Apart from telling us you’re only half-listening, the noise interference reduces accessibility.
- If it’s a large group, I mute them myself and request they use IM or online chat interfaces to raise queries instead.
- Ensure people introduce themselves first before asking questions so we’re clear who is speaking. It's not always easy to distinguish between unfamiliar voices.
- If someone asks a question, I repeat it. This means I make sure I heard the question correctly, and ensures everyone else has heard it as well.
I'm careful to find out about room layouts in advance of arriving in a new training room. I use name-plates on desks so that I can easily identify people and ensure I have a map of where people are sat. This means I'm not relying on solely on their verbal introduction to establish their name.
Depending on the size of the group, I set some ground-rules for the session. Asking people to raise their hands means I know what direction to look in before they start talking. I often use humour when asking this as no-one likes to feel they are back in the school classroom. I’ve never yet encountered negative feedback. Some people still talk with their hand behind their mouth, but a gentle reminder and an explanation that I lip-read usually suffices.
Using white boards, flip charts and dealing with technology means I sometimes have to briefly turn my back on an audience. I let them know that if I'm not facing them, I can’t hear them. I joke that throwing a shoe will often attract my attention, and in ten years, only one person has taken their shoe off and (jokingly) threatened to throw it!
Occasionally, I'm asked a question and despite extensive practice at filling-in-the-gaps, I just can’t make out what someone is asking. Throwing the question out to the group and asking ‘would someone else like to offer a solution?’ saves me from continually saying ‘Can you repeat that?’ and provides an inclusive way of introducing active learning opportunities for all members of the group. Usually, I can then pick up on the issue and offer further feedback or confirmation if required.
Communicating with manager
My line manager is aware of my deafness, and my plans for dealing with various situations. I ensure I keep them informed and make sure that I've got backup. This is mostly for my own protection. It’s about confidence and feeling safe that in the event that a colleague complains because they feel that my deafness has had a negative impact on their training experience, I know I am supported. Mostly, this is my own fear, and I've never had that feedback.
I also make sure that any face-to-face conversations I have with my manager I follow up with email to confirm my actions. It provides clarity that I've heard and understood correctly and an opportunity for her to correct it. During catch ups, one of the most useful things she does is to provide space. I can’t listen properly and write at the same time, so when she gives an instruction and sees me making notes, she pauses until I've finished and am ready to look at her again. I scrawl the odd thing during meetings without breaking contact with the speaker, and whilst my ability to write without looking adds a wonky charm to the notes in my diary, I would rather things were neater.
How to include** me in the workplace
I don’t have to say this – it’s obvious right? But if you’re not sure how to include someone you know is deaf, ask them what they need. We also have a responsibility to tell you if we need something, but not everyone chooses to self-disclose. It will depend on their own levels of deafness, and preferences for communication. But if I could I influence your practice, my top hates – and solutions are below.
- If you’re sending out joining instructions for a conference or training session, provide accessibility information. Let me know what facilitates are already in place and invite me to tell you if I need something else. Don’t just provide a phone number. Include an email where I can actually get a response.
- Yes, reserve me a seat at the front if it’s appropriate. I need to be able to see people to hear clearly and constantly having to peer round the back of someone’s head is irritating. I will always turn up early to a training event or meeting to ensure I get the best seat possible.
- If I get in contact and ask you about the set-up, think about all the different parts of your training and how accessibility levels might change during the day. I've been to training sessions where the trainer has happily reserved a seat at the front of the room for me, only to discover on the day that the afternoon would be spent in rotating groups. Six groups, working in one room having a noisy conversation – I was excluded from that activity and politely sat nodding my head, catching only snippets of the group discussion. Give me the heads up so I can work with you to find a solution or workable compromise.
- If you are showing audio-visual media, include captions, subtitles, or consider providing a written script/overview on request. It’s not really good enough to say ‘sorry, you won’t be able to hear this bit’. (Yes. That’s happened)
- Don’t just introduce an exercise verbally. Have guidance written down and displayed on either a handout, flipchart or screen. Saves you repeating yourself continually.
- Don’t give out crucial information or shout instructions whilst everyone is flapping about opening laptops, rustling paper and dragging chairs across the floor. I’m not looking at you, I can’t hear you.
- Think like a weather presenter. You should know what’s on your presentation slide, you wrote it. Have some confidence in that, and stop turning round to look at the screen. Every time you do that, you might as well stop talking. Again, If I can’t see your face, I can’t hear you.
- I don’t hear every word. I watch. I mentally repeat the sounds, fill in the gaps, and correct obvious misheard words. It all happens quickly, but it means there might be a pause before I respond. Lip-readers don’t generally read every word, and a lot of it is guesswork and prediction. Give me space.
- Introducing an unfamiliar terms? Write it down or provide notes. I spent a good 30 minutes in a SharePoint training session trying to make sense of what a developer was saying about ‘Cycle Actions’. Turned out he was saying ‘Site Collections’, but I only realised that when I got the notes at the end of the section. I struggle with unfamiliar accents. I’m envious of those whose lipreading is advanced enough to be able to spot variations in regional lip-patterns. (In the same way we have regional accents; our lip-patterns vary as well. To my horror, although I thought I’d avoided a Bristolian accent, I appear to have a Bristolian lip-pattern.). Back to the point - in some cases, there are good reasons for providing notes up front and not waiting until the end of the course.
- Asking a question in a conference session? Use the microphone. You might think your voice is loud enough, but please don’t be shy. You've got something to say, and I’m interested to hear it.
- My eye-contact is different. Whilst I will make eye-contact, my gaze will move to your mouth to fill in the gaps. Please don’t be shy. Uncover your mouth. When you hide behind your hand, I can’t hear you.
- Use my name. I tend to filter out background noise so I can concentrate. If you are talking to me, get my attention first to make sure I'm looking at you. Putting my name at the start of the sentence is my cue that I need to pay attention. Otherwise you’ll discover you can have a whole conversation on your own and I won’t even be aware you’re talking to me.
- You don’t need to slow down. It distorts the normal pattern and flow of speech. If someone is lip-reading, they’ll be happy if you are looking at them, speaking clearly and pronouncing correctly.
If you want to find out more, Action on Hearing Loss is full of resources, including a glossary of terms.
* I’m not keen on the term ‘hearing loss’. I didn’t lose it, as I never had it to begin with. But it’s a term that’s generally accepted, although often associated with people who experience a decrease in hearing as they grow older.
** Can I admit I hate the word ‘inclusion’? Something about inclusion still being the majority /choosing/ to include minority groups. There’s got to be a better way. But I use it in the spirit of agreeing that most of us understand what we mean by ‘inclusion’ and I don’t yet have a better alternative. Inclusion of minority groups shouldn’t be a choice. That’s a rant for another blog post though.