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What, are you deaf or something? Part 2

Welcome back to part 2 of Dhana’s blog series. Dhana McIver, our Disability Officer at Balfour+Manson, is working hard to raise awareness of the barriers that deaf people face in the working world and to help guide colleagues and employers on what they can do to support both deaf employees and the wider deaf community. 

I hope you enjoyed last week’s post! Thank you for the feedback that has come in 🙂  This week focuses on my working experiences. I have also included my university experience as that is very relevant too. I’ll finish off with simple tips that employers and colleagues can do straight away.

When I look back at the jobs I have had I find it amusing because there is an obvious path to where I am now: a clear pre and post legal career.  Babysitter, Customer Service Representative, I-don’t-even-know-what-my-official-title-was, Reporter, Layout Designer, Court Officer, Administration Officer/Clerk of Court, Paralegal, and now Trainee Solicitor. Each job I held contributed to my growth in a lot of different ways. In particular two jobs in Canada  really taught me a lot about navigating the world as a deaf person.

Pre-Legal Career (Canada)

My first proper job was at Staples when I was 18.  I have vague memories of my interview – I remember being asked to sell a pen. I also remember being asked how I thought my hearing loss might affect the job. I shrugged and said I didn’t know because I hadn’t had a job like that before. I don’t know how I got the job, but I did. I worked at Staples as a Customer Service Representative. Stocking shelves, assisting customers, operating the tills. Lots of face-to-face interactions with colleagues and customers. I worked with a really great crew and had excellent store managers. The title of my blog series came from an interaction that I had with a customer while I was working the returns counter one shift. A customer came in and he was really annoyed and wanted to return a product. Problem was, he was mumbling and not speaking clearly at all. I asked him three times to repeat himself and on the third time he threw up his arms and shouted, “What, are you deaf or something?!” Well, I looked at him for a beat, and very calmly – almost deadpan, replied “actually, I am”, and showed him my hearing aids. His reaction was priceless. He went sheet white, beet red, sheet white again, and I thought he was going to faint. Instead he apologised profusely and ended up leaving the store with the product he came in with. I never saw him again. I still have a laugh about it. Like I said last week, it’s an invisible disability, and you just never know if the person you are speaking to is hard of hearing or deaf!

I didn’t have any other issues working at Staples. Face-to-face communication goes a long way when you are a lip-reader. I think it helped too that I generally worked the evening shifts due to being at college during the day, so the store was quieter than it would be otherwise. I have many fond memories of Store 145 and I am thankful for my colleagues who did look out for me.

When I studied journalism, I did two stints of interning with Oak Bay News in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. That was probably when the tide started to turn, in terms of becoming used to challenging environments and having to adapt quickly. Being a reporter meant that I found myself in many different places. I interviewed three World War Two veterans at a nursing home (to date my favourite article that I’ve ever published, and it was nominated for an award too!), interviewing city councillors at City Hall, interviewing members of the public in a pub, and interviewing students and teachers in a school – to name but a few. In all those situations I had to be aware of what was going on around me at all times and made sure that I positioned myself so that I could lip read. I remember saying to everyone I was interviewing that I was deaf and wore hearing aids and no one ever got annoyed at having to repeat themselves. The war veterans in particular got a kick out of that because they all wore hearing aids as well. I also had a tape recorder which I would listen back on with headphones. That was such a learning experience and taught me a lot about how to handle myself in crowds of people. Oak Bay News actually offered me a job, but I turned it down. Victoria is my soul home, and I knew at that point that it wasn’t “the right time” and I had to experience more of the world. Little did I know…

Onwards to Scotland and a career in law

I started out in the Scottish Courts as a Court Officer through a temp agency. I was based at a Court that was in an older building, but also went “down the road” with the Sheriff and Clerk to the annex, which was more modern.  They were great places to work. The court rooms were small, the office was small, and there were no issues. My role was to bring the Sheriff on and off the bench, direct the public, accused and witnesses where to go, handle productions for court cases, deliver court papers from office to chambers and back again. I interacted with a wide range of people every day. It was a valuable introduction to the workings of the justice system and eased me into getting used to the environment and people. I then became an Administration Officer and was based in the office: preparing courts, disposing of courts, taking fines, processing motions, lodging small claim/summary cause actions, and checking commissary applications. Usually the interactions with the public were to take fine payments or to provide updates on cases over the phone.  The difficulty with phones is that you can’t lip read, so accents can be challenging for me. I got a volume control that hooked into the phone and that moved with me from desk to desk (desk rotations were every 6 months). There were times where I couldn’t understand someone on the other end, so I had to get a colleague to take the call. That didn’t happen too often, thankfully. The public counter at the older building had a plexiglass window with openings for people to pass papers or money for fines. There was a speech hole, but sometimes I had to put my ear right up to it in order to hear the customer. A couple of years into the gig, I did the AODP program, which trained AOs to be able to carry out duties as Clerks of Court (the person that sits in front of the Sheriff and records the proceedings). I remained an AO but started clerking courts. I loved clerking, especially when the court was at the older building. But then came the announcement that it was closing, and we were moving to the new Civic Centre that was being built. At the time the staff were asked to provide their input as to what they would like to see there. With it being a modern building, I had quite high expectations. I thought that they should put in the modern loop system and if at all possible, not have it open plan. It was a shock when the tour came, and it was pretty much everything that was going to be a challenge for me. It took a long time to adjust. Not only were the phones ringing in the Clerk’s office, but you could also hear them ringing around the building. It was very difficult for me taking fines and the like over the phone with all the background noise, even with my hearing aids turned off. The public counter also had a plexiglass window, and there were some occasions where I actually I had to go out and speak to the person because I just couldn’t hear them through it. Lipreading could be challenging because of the reflection off it from all the office lights behind me.

Hearing aids amplify sound. So if you have an environment that’s already loud, hearing aids will just make it even louder.  I enjoyed clerking courts because it got me out of the office and into a quieter space. The court rooms had their challenges too. They have very high ceilings so sound just travelled straight up. At the older building, the bench the Sheriff sat at wasn’t too much higher than the Clerk, but at the Civic Centre, there are a couple of court rooms where the Sheriff is quite high up. That meant that sound travelled over my head when I was sitting down. I largely managed okay by sitting sort of side on to the bench. However, I did have a bad day where I had a cold and a hearing aid malfunction at the same time while clerking a criminal court. It was not a good experience and was quite traumatising for me. I did have a workplace assessment after that incident, and that also was not a very good experience. I found it difficult to relay what I needed. I actually struggle to remember a lot of what happened around that time – I think I must have put a mental block up.

I don’t want to put deaf or hard of hearing people off being court lawyers. I stress that this is my experience only. Even writing this, I know myself that I would probably be absolutely fine as a court solicitor, due to facing the bench and being able to position myself accordingly. I know also that there is technology out there such as Phonak’s Roger system that will be a huge help to this. However, you need to have compatible technology, which is very expensive and so far, as I know, not available on the NHS. I have recently applied for Access to Work funding and if successful I will be able to get this. Maybe I’ll even change my mind about making an appearance in court. Watch this space!

I am veering now into the realm of barriers and that’s next week’s topic 😉

Paralegal training, moving into the Private sector, and the LLB

With encouragement from my colleagues, I applied to do paralegal training and did this through Scotia Law/University of Stirling. One on one learning with a tutor, and assignments that I completed at my own pace. Communication was largely through email, with the odd phone call and on campus assessments in person. That was a fantastic experience. When I graduated with my Graduate Diploma specialising in wills and executries, I moved into the private sector to finish off my training.

I went to a small firm. The solicitor largely dealt with the clients, and I did the drafting and accounts. It was a small team and that was ideal. Moving from a large open plan office to a small one with rooms was dramatic and definitely quieter. One of the reasons why I chose private client is because the client interactions are generally one to one. Easier to hear and take instructions.

Along the way, I decided to go back to school to get my LLB (or Bachelor of Laws). I was not expecting to get in, and it was a shock when I did. I still don’t know how I survived it to be honest! From the get-go the inclusion team at the University was in touch, but at that time they were limited by what they could offer in terms of support. I did my LLB online, so the lectures were recorded and then we had tutorials during the week via video conferencing. The caption program that was provided through the platform was shockingly inaccurate. I relied a lot on my classmates (and now good friends) and am forever grateful for their notes, keeping me up to speed, and for letting me rant. In my last year of the degree, the University did get a third-party caption program through my grant that I was able to get as a Disabled student. It was a lot more reliable. I used the same program again when I did my Diploma in Professional Legal Practice the following year, and it really did make a world of difference.  I asked my friends for their recollections of that time, and their observations were:

Lack of captions or they were of poor quality. Some tutors didn’t check them before posting the lectures.

Pre-recorded lectures that were done in a lecture theatre so there was a lot of background noise. They struggled so could only imagine how bad it was for me.

Some lecturers and classmates not turning their cameras on when they were speaking.

I would ask for notes because I would miss things in Tutorials (where there were no captions).

I still marvel that I graduated with a law degree because it was not easy. I often wonder if my grades would have changed if the quality of the support had been higher and provided at an earlier stage.

Moving into the practice of law

When I graduated with the LLB and the Diploma, the next step was the traineeship. I moved to Balfour+Manson for more exposure to different types of Private Client work. I love my team. They are incredibly supportive, and the firm as a whole have been very receptive to me. They asked what room I’d be comfortable in, where my desk needed to be placed (always facing the door) and what other adjustments I’d need (I requested a change of lights in the boardroom for video meetings – it was difficult to lipread before). I ran a Deaf Awareness talk for my team not long after I started, and that was very well received. It will get rolled out to the firm at some stage. I also did the same talk for the Law Society and the feedback from that was great. Slowly but surely attitudes are changing and that is because we are talking about it.   

Things employers can do to support deaf/hard of hearing staff from start

So what can I take away from all my working experiences, that employers and colleagues could implement straight away – before you even bring in adjustments to technology (which costs money)?

Be clear in communication. Don’t cover your mouth or have your back to the person you are speaking to.

If they don’t respond, get their attention (i.e. tapping their shoulder). Chances are they didn’t hear you – especially if you are behind them.

If you are a beard-wearer – keep it trimmed and neat.

Listen to the deaf/hard of hearing when they are explaining what they need. Sometimes it’s as simple as having additional volume controls or placing a desk in a different location. If they need remote working – please do your best to accommodate that.

If it’s an important conversation, follow up in writing and summarise the conversation. Send an email.

Remember that not everyone is able-bodied. It is exhausting for a deaf/hard of hearing person to communicate. We are (well at least I am) looking at body language, mouth movements and trying to hear.

Create and nurture an environment where people will want to be upfront about their disabilities and seek support. If you are approached by someone seeking help or support, listen and be proactive. It takes a lot for someone to have the confidence to be able to ask for help. If you don’t know the answer, don’t worry – we can sort that out together. Just listen.

If someone asks you to repeat yourself do not say “never mind” or “it doesn’t matter” and then walk away. This is so isolating and rude. It happens a lot, and I always set the person straight.

If you are running a meeting over Zoom, please make sure you have captioning activated. It can only be turned on by the course organiser.

If you are deaf or hard of hearing and reading this – please speak up for yourself. You are your best advocate.  There were times when I was younger where I didn’t pick up what people were saying, but instead of asking them to repeat themselves, I would nod along. I don’t do that anymore because the only person that hurts is me.

Thanks for reading along this week. If you have any questions or feedback, please do get in touch! My email is dhana.mciver@balfour-manson.co.uk. Next week I’ll write about barriers facing deaf and hard of hearing people and issues in the  legal industry. “See” you then!