Cara Low, Head of Marketing at EW Group, discusses her personal experience of dealing with hearing loss in the workplace, the power of inclusive representation and how employers can create a more inclusive workplace.
Hearing loss in the workplace
At the age of 18 I was diagnosed as partially deaf. I have sensorineural hearing loss which is linked to the nerves in my ear either not developing properly, pre-aging or being damaged. I am more than 60% deaf with quite severe tinnitus (for an insight into what I hear, the Tinnitus Clinic has a great page on tinnitus sounds – I hear the 7500 Hz tone and the screeching ones constantly).
Early in my career I was fortunate to have an understanding employer who recognised the challenges I was facing with my hearing. But since then, I have encountered numerous insensitivities, some more blatant than others. A workplace lacking an inclusive culture can become a hostile and isolating environment for hard of hearing employees. But one that is empathetic and inclusive can help boost confidence and, in my case, I have progressed in my marketing career, leading teams and managing senior stakeholders.
I recently joined EW Group and have been on a whirlwind journey learning about all things diversity and inclusion. From my initial interview request, where I was asked if I needed any accessibility adjustments, to joining the company and my induction, I have been impressed by the consideration EW gives to all its employees, and the inclusive culture which has made me feel at home so quickly.
Action: Awareness and inclusivity training is crucial to help teams gain a better understanding of how to accommodate and engage with their disabled colleagues.
Invest in tech that offers accessibility features
The pandemic has changed the way we communicate, with online meetings now the norm. This brings a number of benefits and drawbacks for the deaf community. People do not speak over each other as often in online meetings as they do in face-to-face interactions, which makes it much easier for the hard of hearing to follow the conversation. However, it is important to be mindful of sound quality and background noise which can make it more difficult. Fortunately, many technology providers have enhanced accessibility features, such as the live captions function now available on Microsoft Teams. Whilst it might not be perfect, it is a step in the right direction towards more inclusive meetings.
Action: Partner with technology providers that incorporate accessibility features into their services.
The power of inclusive representation
Recently, while browsing on ASOS.com, I was thrilled to see one of the models wearing a hearing device. It felt really positive to see a disabled model working with a big brand and clearly showing her disability rather than hiding it. I don’t recall ever seeing a fashion model sporting a hearing device before, and it certainly made me feel more of an affinity with ASOS as a result. When I posted about it on LinkedIn I was astounded by the response. Over 6,000 people liked or commented on the post, expressing the importance of inclusive marketing and the representation of diverse groups in advertising. It is clear this resonates with those with disabilities, but also those without.
Representation matters. Take the award winning Maltesers’ Look on the Light Side campaign, which launched in 2016.
The Mars-owned confectionery brand adopted a humorous take on disability that proved to be one of its most successful campaigns ever.
As the creators of the campaign explain, "By recognising that disabled people want to be accepted, not exceptionalised, we found a unique creative angle with which to approach our communications," the authors say: showing disabled people laughing about their own mishaps.
Image: Maltesers' 2016 spot 'New Boyfriend' launched around the Rio Paralympics and helped rejuvenate the brand's fortunes in the UK
Brand tracking showed that people who had seen the campaign were 20% more likely to say that they liked Maltesers as a brand, and 22% more likely to say that they thought Maltesers was a brand for 'someone like me'.
Key takeaway: Not only did this campaign help deaf or hard of hearing people feel seen, but value sales for the campaign period increased 8.1% against a year earlier – more than four times that of the segment. Volume sales grew 19.4% – again outgrowing segment growth more than four times.
Of course, inclusivity goes much further than marketing. From recruitment and selection through to on-boarding and staff engagement, we need to create a culture that is inclusive of physical and hidden disabilities and incorporate this into every stage to ensure accessibility as a whole. Take event planning as an example. Actively think about accessibility when planning events – does the venue have disabled access? Will I need an AV system to ensure my audience can hear my panelists? Are our marketing materials and collateral accessible e.g. captions for the hard of hearing and audio commentary to help the visually impaired.
How to support hearing-impaired staff in the workplace
Here are my key takeaways and advice for supporting people like me:
1. Ask and listen
It’s often the small things that make a big difference and my top tip is just that – ask and listen. Ask people if they have any accessibility requirements which you need to consider – this is applicable from recruitment to every meeting you have and a must for creating an inclusive culture.
Ask your colleagues to share their own lived experiences, whether their own or as a relative or friend of someone affected. This is a really strong way of engaging with your workforce and raising awareness and understanding.
2. Be kind
Consider the impact your actions have on others and what you can do to accommodate and make people with hearing impairments included in the conversation. Shouting, talking really slowly or using simple words is not what I mean here – I am deaf, not stupid!
3. Accommodate lip readers
Many of us rely on filling in the gaps by lip reading. To accommodate this, face the person you are talking to and look at them, so they know you are talking to them. Make sure your mouth is visible and avoid obscuring your mouth with your hands or, if you’re wearing a mask, lower it whilst speaking to allow them to lip read.
4. Avoid getting frustrated
We know it may be annoying having to repeat yourself numerous times for us, but it is much more frustrating for us! Please be patient and speak clearly and we will get there. I also find it useful to ask people to use the police (phonetic) alphabet when spelling things out to me – for instance ‘s’ and ‘f’ sound very similar and can’t easily be differentiated when lip reading!
Helpful resources on deafness and hearing impairments
There are many helpful resources available. Some of those I have found helpful I’ve included below:
- The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) offer support and useful guides on topics such as tinnitus, technology and assistive devices, and local support services.
- Deaf Unity is another great site with a host of resources for educators, families, professionals and students.
- The British Deaf Society (BDA) have some informative FAQs and information on British Sign Language which are worth checking out.
- Learning labs provides assistive technology online training, accessibility support and e-learning solutions for students.