What? Dealing with hearing loss at work
- Posted on January 27, 2020
- Estimated reading time 3 minutes
I first suspected something was wrong with my hearing when a pretty senior, OK, a very senior exec, paused her presentation to ask me what on earth was wrong. as Apparently, I had been frowning deeply. I stuttered and stammered my way through my excuses, whilst frantically trying to figure out why I was having to concentrate so hard. I’ve always frowned when concentrating and, frankly, I don’t have the smiliest of faces either, but putting someone off and appearing that I didn’t like the content of what they were saying … that’s not good.
Not long after that, it was confirmed I had moderate hearing loss in both ears and no, there was nothing to be done and it would get progressively worse. “Your disability may be helped if you use hearing aids, but they won’t restore your hearing, and you’ll need to be patient.”
So, why am I telling you all this? What does my disability have to do with your day to day?
Because, I want to talk about inclusion: Being deaf impacts quality of life – including at work. And this isn’t a minor issue either:
- The U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders has found approximately 15% of American adults (37.5 million) aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing – that’s 1 in 6 of us.
- Hearing loss comes in four stages – mild, moderate, severe and profound. To put that into context, learning to lipread is recommended when you get to severe – with my absolute inability to pick up languages other than English, I shall need to start soon!
- Certain letter groups are more challenging than others – high frequency sounds and the letters K, F, S, C, TH. I’ve included my charts below – see the gray area, that’s normal speech. See where my lines drop off a cliff – those are the high frequency sounds that I’ve lost.
- Environments that are busy with lots of people are really difficult – the background noise overwhelms everything else.
But, hearing aids? Those fix it, right? Well, yes and no… A hearing aid accentuates everything, including all that noise that your brain naturally filters out, like keystrokes and air conditioning vents. The first trick with hearing aids is to retrain your brain to focus on the important stuff and filter the rest. It’s overwhelming. And tiring. My audiologist explained that my ears will hear the letter “a” in “cat” then work to fill in the blanks depending on context. That’s in a good environment without background noise, but in bad ones, like big networking or social events – the chances I’ve heard you and can fill in the blanks are minimized. The result? The world is ridiculously noisy with aids in, and frustrating without them. It really is a stark choice.
However, I’m truly grateful that I work in such an inclusive firm like Avanade where my colleagues accommodate my needs on a day-to-day basis; the amazing Learning and Development team doesn’t take any notice when I’m frowning or I ask them to repeat themselves. In person, they ensure I have line of sight (if I can’t see you, I can’t hear you!). They know when I move into a quieter area, it’s because I’ve become overwhelmed. In the classroom, where I get to hang out with really cool people, Avanade employees respond in an overwhelmingly positive fashion and I thank them for that. Special thanks is reserved for my mentor who once walked into a restaurant and said, “Nope, not here, I’ve more chance of the wall hearing me than you!” And, extended benefits enable me to buy the tech I need to fill-in-the-gaps whilst working virtually that removes a great number of the auditory barriers.
Those are my experiences with learning to live with my disability; my ask is that you consider hearing loss as a common but mostly invisible disability. And, that when we meet, that you stand right in front of me before speaking. Of course, if you want absolute discretion, whisper to me in crowded place and your secret is completely safe.
You can find out more about adjustments for those living with hearing loss here.