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What, are you deaf or something?!

Welcome to the first in a series of blogs by Dhana McIver, our Disability Officer at Balfour+Manson. Dhana 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. 

Hi! My name is Dhana. I love to read, bake, and to be outdoors. I love baseball (a lifelong Blue Jays fan!) and rugby. I adore Mexican food, Thai food, poutine (a Canadian delicacy), and perogies (an eastern European delicacy: a dumpling that’s filled with mashed potatoes) served with lots of sour cream, fried onions, and bacon. I love jazz and classical music and am a big Tolkien nut. I am Canadian and very proud of my British and Ukrainian/Romanian roots. I am just like any other person, but: –

I am profoundly deaf.

I am currently a Trainee Solicitor in the Private Client team, and Disability Officer at B+M. It’s been a long road getting here, and one that started back in Canada.

Over the next five weeks I will be sharing with you a bit about myself, what I hope to achieve in my role as Disability Officer at Balfour+Manson, and in general as a deaf person. I’ll write about issues I’ve faced personally, and in the working world; barriers facing deaf and hard of hearing people, what I think the legal field needs to do to be more inclusive, and how law firms (or any workplace, really) can better support their deaf/hard of hearing staff and clients. I will also write about deaf awareness and answer questions that have been coming in. There will even be a list of resources, for further reading if you are interested in learning more.

I hope that you find this series informative and beneficial.

The beginning of the road

Some 40 odd years ago, I was born 2.5 months premature. My mom noticed that I wasn’t responding to sounds and had me tested. Eventually I was diagnosed with a sensorineural hearing loss in both ears. The tiny hairs in my cochlea didn’t develop. Instead of standing upright to catch all the sound waves coming down through the ear, they are flat and so the sound waves just pass right through. Official diagnosis: moderate to severe loss in my right ear and severe to profound loss in my left. To put that into context I’ve included a diagram:

The diagram shows the sounds that are missing in each level of hearing loss. So, for someone with a mild hearing loss, they would miss the letters “j”, “z”, “h”, “sh”, and “g” as well as some types of conversation. Someone with a profound loss would not be able to hear those letters, conversations, or jackhammers, lawn mowers, and airplanes. There are two other types of hearing loss along with sensorineural, which are all explained here.

I’ve shared one of my audiograms, so that you can see what it looks like.  The bottom line that veers sharply down is my left ear, and the one that has all the circles is my right ear.

Anyway, I was given a pair of hearing aids and, when I was old enough (probably when I started school), I underwent fairly rigorous speech therapy. I was not taught American sign language (ASL). Instead, I had a teacher’s aide who sat with me in class, and an FM system. It looked rather like a Walkman (think Starlord in Guardians of the Galaxy). The teacher would wear the microphone part, and my half of the set hooked into my hearing aids. When the teacher spoke, it came through my hearing aids. My classmates and I would have a lot of laughs with this, as we pretty quickly realised that the teachers would forget to turn off the microphone when they went to the bathroom, or to speak to someone else. This made me very popular, especially if someone was getting into trouble out in the hall!

I hated having a teacher’s aide as I felt it drew attention to me and singled me out. I also hated the FM system for the same reason, and it wasn’t very reliable. There would be a lot of feedback through the mic, or it would brush up against the teacher’s clothing and make a rustling noise. I learned how to lip-read and became a professional observer of people and body language. I did get bullied, but generally just switched my hearing aids off and ignored it. I also did that when my parents shouted at me, but I digress. Sorry mom and dad!

When high school started, I refused the FM system because, well – let’s be real, what teenager wants to be “uncool”? I did have a teacher’s aide. She didn’t sit with me but when I needed support, she would be there. She would get the rundown from the teacher of what was covered and then go over it again one to one. I always sat at the front, or near to it, and in the senior years of high school when we were lucky enough to have spare periods, sometimes I would go down to the room that my teacher aide was in and hang out there with some other kids. I made it through high school relatively unscathed. I wasn’t an academic by any stretch, but I did graduate with a high school diploma.

I have always slept without my hearing aids in, and it got to the point where my mom had to source a watch where the alarm would vibrate on my wrist. In order to hear a normal alarm (or radio in this case), the volume had to be turned all the way up. The rest of the house didn’t appreciate getting up at stupid o’clock! Technology has moved on from the 90s, but even now I sleep with a smart watch for the alarm. I was also taught from a young age how to use the phone. I can remember my mom having family friends phone us and I would answer the phone. Initially with hearing aids in, but it wasn’t very comfortable or clear. We got an additional volume control that hooked into it, but to this day I answer the phone taking my hearing aid out or using the speaker function. I’m told that technology has evolved so much that nowadays phone calls can come straight through to the hearing aid via blue tooth, but I don’t have that technology yet. It’s quite expensive!

Outside of school, I was just like any other kid. I was out playing with friends, riding my bike, playing sports, cross country skiing, or exploring in the forest.  I went fishing and camping a lot with my family. I always marched to the beat of my own drum even when my hearing aids were taken out for things like swimming. I also buried myself in books and was a voracious reader. That was my escape, reading, and being out in the forest by our house. A true forest, in every sense of the word, as I grew up in a small town in northern Alberta – a five-hour drive from the nearest city. The said city that all my audiology appointments were at. I learned to tolerate road trips fairly quickly.

In college I didn’t have any assistance or support and was left to just get on with it. I did a year of general studies at our community college, and then studied journalism for two years in Calgary. Class sizes were small, and I always positioned myself at the front so that I could hear the instructor. There was one occasion that mortified me, and it has stayed with me ever since. In my hometown I only knew of one other deaf person around my age. There just wasn’t much exposure to other people “like me”. In Calgary, I was on the bus one day going to college. It was a packed bus and standing room only. Someone tapped me on my shoulder, and it was a guy, who looked VERY excited. Now, I wrote earlier that I wasn’t taught sign language when I was younger. By the time I was in college, I had taught myself the alphabet and knew some basic words and phrases in ASL. The guy excitedly pointed to my hearing aids, then to his ears, and he started signing to me. I was absolutely mortified because I am deaf, and he was deaf, but I couldn’t communicate with him. I signed to him that I didn’t know ASL, and the look on his face was of such disappointment. It was the first time that I felt ashamed to not be fluent in ASL and also the first time that I felt like I couldn’t call myself a deaf person, because I didn’t know sign language, and was able to function as if I was a “hearing” person. I’ve struggled with that ever since. One foot in each world and not quite one or the other.

However, I have much to thank my parents, my brother, my extended family, and my friends for. I think it’s fair to say that my childhood through to my early 20s was a “blissful ignorance” sort of existence – at least, until I started working. I will write about the working world in next week’s post!

What is it like?

I am often asked what it’s like being deaf. The best way I can describe it to hearing people is that it’s like being underwater, where sounds are muffled. Or, if you cover your ears/wear ear plugs, sound is muted. The thing to remember is that deafness is unique to the person. So, the way that I experience deafness will not be the same way that someone else does. When I am not wearing my hearing aids, I cannot hear people unless they are standing right beside me and next to my ear. I also have a condition called Tinnitus which is a consistent ringing in the ear. It’s pretty much 24/7 now. Sometimes it sounds like a freight train roaring through my head, other times it’s just a loud ringing. Either way, when I have a bad flare up, I want to drive a hot poker through my head.

Most people do not know that I am deaf until I tell them and there is always a reaction of shock and surprise:

“But you don’t look deaf?!”

“But you don’t talk like you are deaf?!”

You can’t tell just by looking at someone. Not everyone wears hearing aids or has a cochlear implant. A lot of people wear the hearing aids that go inside the ear canal.  It’s an “invisible” disability. Just as not every deaf or hard of hearing person is a BSL user (or any other type of sign language). In saying that, people with hearing loss or deafness are a lot more common than you might think. In the UK alone, 12 million people have some type of hearing loss or deafness, and that number is increasing all the time.

What is the difference?

You might be asking yourself what is the difference is between someone who is Deaf and someone who is hard of hearing? Interestingly enough, it depends on who you talk to. SignHealth, a deaf health charity, has a wonderful explanation on their website.

The World Health Organisation categorises it as follows:

Hard of hearing is a term that refers to someone with mild-to-severe hearing loss. In these individuals, some hearing capability is still present.

Deafness, on the other hand, refers to profound hearing loss. Deaf people have very little hearing or none at all.

The National Association of the Deaf in the USA has yet another classification.

However someone identifies, never use the term hearing impaired, as the word “impaired” has a negative connotation. It’s not a negative thing being deaf or hard of hearing. Sure, travelling the road of life can be more dangerous and more difficult, but I guarantee you, you will come across more deaf people who are proud of being deaf than not. It is an identity. It is also important to never assume . Be led by the deaf/hard of hearing person in conversations. I will discuss communication tips and deaf awareness more in blog post number 4.

If you want to know about my experience with the NHS, check out my post on my personal blog here. In the same blog, I also wrote about adjusting to new hearing aids (my current pair), and you can read about that here.

Please join me next week where I’ll write about my experiences in the working world – in retail in Canada and public service/legal service in Scotland. If you have any questions, or comments, please email me at dhana.mciver@balfour-manson.co.uk , or leave a comment below.