Silent Disability and Inclusivity in The Workplace

Silent Disability and Inclusivity in The Workplace

Did you know it’s Deaf Awareness Week

In honour of this brilliant initiative to raise awareness about the issues affecting deaf people, I wanted to tell you something you may not know about me – I am totally deaf in my right ear and have been since I was 14 years old. 

My deafness is considered a silent disability. Because I can still hear with my left, this means that, if I had not just told you upfront about my disability, you may not otherwise have known I had one at all. 

Silent disabilities can be tricky to navigate in the workplace. I know from experience it can be hard for the person, their coworkers and team leaders alike to know where they stand and how, or even if, to respectfully approach the subject. 

Therefore, after years of not telling that many people about my deafness, instead of discussing Data Governance topics as is my norm, in this article, I want explore silent disabilities in the workplace, with reference to my own experiences.

A bit about me 

Many years ago, I had aspirations of becoming a lawyer. However, my journey took a different turn due to a rather extraordinary accident which happened to me in school. The incident resulted in a dislocated jaw and significant damage to my right inner ear, causing me to miss a year of my O-level studies and also part of my A-level studies. 

Some might say having one functioning ear isn’t severe, but it was isolating and painful for me. I withdrew from school and hobbies. Lip reading classes, though well-intentioned, proved challenging as everyone there was more profoundly deaf. Feeling like I didn’t fit in either the hearing or deaf world, returning to school became traumatic despite the support I had.

Nevertheless, I did return and ended up excelling in my studies. But with ongoing surgeries on my horizon, I questioned the feasibility of pursuing law as I didn’t feel that I’d be able to get my degree with my health issues. Instead, I joined Lloyds Bank’s management training scheme which led me to a successful career in the bank.  After an interesting route through very different roles,  I eventually got into project management, which led me into the realm of data governance

My health hurdles and deafness may have delayed aspects of my career, but they also fueled a resilient determination to overcome obstacles and pursue what became a passion for data governance.

The impact of my silent disability on my data career

Due to my deafness, I believe my career journey had a delayed trajectory. Whilst I did achieve the role of assistant manager at the bank at a very young age, a lack of confidence, because of my deafness, slowed my career trajectory after that point.

Despite being labelled as shy by my bosses, I wasn’t as shy as they thought; I just hesitated when unsure about the conversation. I selectively shared my deafness, explaining it to those I built relationships with rather than announcing it right away. I was (and still can be) paranoid about where I could sit in meeting rooms, so I could hear as much as possible. One incident during an office move highlighted the challenges. My boss unintentionally placed me with all of the team sitting on my deaf side.  This meant that I couldn’t hear my teammates, requiring a change of plan and a seat swap with another colleague who didn’t quite understand why he had to give up his window seat! But it wasn’t about preference—it was about being included in team interactions. Not everyone understands that and it can be isolating for deaf people and act as a barrier to confidence and inclusion. 

 Perhaps my stubbornness, fueled by experiences of being told “no” due to deafness, motivated me in the end. But initially, I kept my deafness private at work and it was a real confidence issue for me. These days, I see it very differently. 

Whilst participating in a workshop about sharing origin stories, I realised that being deaf is part of my narrative, influencing who I am. This shift in perspective prompted me to openly discuss my hearing challenges during a Women in Data panel, resonating with a fellow attendee who thanked me afterwards for exposing the struggles of networking events with hearing loss.

Handling silent disabilities with respect

From my experience, I believe people tend to make assumptions about capabilities, not exclusive to deafness. I’m guilty of it myself.

In a recent incident in Basel, without thought, I jumped to my feet to offer my tram seat to a person on crutches, but the man politely declined and walked on. He didn’t want or need the seat. It emphasised to me the importance of asking and not presuming, as I’ve learned from my sensitivity about hearing loss.

In a similar light, I also unwittingly discovered a colleague’s deafness when he was reporting to me when I was acting as an interim data governance manager. Despite sailing through interviews seamlessly, subtle signs like selective seating and delayed responses made me suspect he had hearing difficulties. Approaching the issue delicately, I often tried to reassure and encourage him by speaking of my own deafness around him. For example, I wear a hearing aid and I would often make a big deal of this when talking to him as a way of indicating, ‘Look, I’m deaf, you can talk to me. I get it’. Despite my efforts, he did not decide to discuss the topic with me.

I eventually asked him outright. Though initially hesitant, he did share his deafness with me and eventually with wider colleagues and it worked out for the better. As more colleagues were informed, he excelled in his career, eventually becoming the head of data governance at another organisation. This experience emphasises further the importance of fostering an inclusive and respectful environment where acknowledging and accommodating differences can lead to personal and professional growth.

Having the confidence to talk about silent disabilities in the workplace 

Building confidence to discuss my deafness in the workplace became crucial for me, especially as a consultant. I found that if I didn’t disclose it, the alternative was that people thought I was stupid! Fearing misconceptions, I realised the positive reactions outweighed the negative ones.

Over the years I have come to realise that it is better if everyone understands why I want to sit where my “good ear” is in the direction of the majority of people and that if I say pardon it wasn’t that I wasn’t paying attention, I genuinely didn’t hear what they were saying. 

It reinforced the idea that acknowledging our challenges doesn’t diminish our capabilities, and that is the message I’d like to emphasise to anyone reading this and looking for confidence in talking about their disability. 

It may shape your narrative but it doesn’t have to impact your success. 

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