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Three reasons I hid my disability at work, and how employers can (and should) help change things

Jennifer is from York. She has a daughter, a partner, and works as a Business Coordinator. She’s had hearing loss since birth and wear two hearing aids.

Today it’s easy for me to tell you, and my employer, that I have a hearing loss. But it hasn’t always. For almost 10 years I actively hid my hearing loss at work.

I feel that this held me back professionally, and stopped me contributing as much as I could have. I wasn’t able to put across the dynamic, professional image that I wanted: the real me.

Why did I hide my hearing loss? Here are some of the reasons…

Jennifer and a colleague at work smiling

I didn’t want it to define me or for me to be defined as disabled

I didn’t want to be known as ‘the deaf one’ or for people to treat me differently. To me I was just me and I really worried that people would only see my hearing loss and not see me as a professional to be taken seriously. As a driven and committed employee I didn’t want to make a fuss and felt that I should be able to cope and keep up, and that if I didn’t that was my fault. I felt that I had to prove to my employer that I was worth the extra bother of employing a disabled person. More than anything, I didn’t want people to think that I was stupid.

I’d had negative experiences

“Oh no, not another one”. This is how I was once welcomed to a new assignment, by a senior colleague, after I told them I had hearing loss. Another time, I shared my preference for email communication with one of my managers, who was unwilling to make adaptations and insisted I use the phone more often than e-mail. While, thankfully, I’ve also encountered many supportive people at work, these intolerant attitudes are all too prevalent, and they made me even less open about my hearing loss.

I wasn’t aware of the support available

Because I was anxious about disclosing my hearing loss at work, for a long time I didn’t seek help. When I got a new job after a career break I found out about the government’s Access to Work scheme and booked myself a workplace assessment. The assessor came to my workplace and talked through all the challenges and problems that I had. To my surprise they had solutions to suggest both in terms of technology and raising awareness of my needs among my colleagues. They reassured me that I was worth the bother and that my employer wouldn’t mind making an effort for me.

“They reassured me that I was worth the bother and that my employer wouldn’t mind making an effort for me”

It doesn’t need to be like this

Eventually, age, acceptance and a supportive line manager encouraged me to be open about my hearing loss, but I often wonder what I could have achieved by now had this support been in place from the get-go.

It took me many years to realise the negative impact that hiding my hearing loss was having on colleagues’ view of me. I didn’t follow conversations, perhaps seemed confused, avoided using the phone, didn’t network at events and didn’t contribute as much as I could have in meetings.

Colleagues thought of me as being very quiet and reserved (friends know that I’m really not!) and I wasn’t putting across the dynamic, professional image that I wanted. When I did tell people about my hearing loss it was usually at the point in a conversation where I was already struggling, flustered and embarrassed – and the other person was probably getting fed up.

I now strongly believe that employees should be able to be up front about their disabilities – for me, I’ve found that being open is actually the best way to make sure that I come across as capable and competent. I feel that my open approach has actually earned me respect among my colleagues.

But it is the responsibility of the employer to make sure they create an environment in which employees feel confident and comfortable enough to be open, knowing that they will be supported and that disclosure will not jeopardise their employment. Managers can support staff with simple actions like having regular, open conversations to find out what their needs are.

While managers don’t need to have all the answers, they should be aware of equality and inclusion policy and procedures and be able to signpost their staff to support and information. Research from RNID has found that over half of people with hearing loss feel forced to hide it from their employer.

Things are getting better for me now. Colleagues are supportive and know that, if I’m two steps behind in the conversation, it’s because I haven’t heard, not because I can’t keep up.

Having found new confidence, and not wanting to do things by halves, I also had my head shaved for charity so I couldn’t hide my hearing aids behind long hair anymore. I took the opportunity to get pink glitter moulds and decorate my aids. Contrary to what I thought would happen, this actually boosted my confidence no end and I now get compliments on my aids from colleagues.

Further information

Get help supporting your employees with hearing loss and remember to follow the Hearing Loss at Work LinkedIn page for news, resources and tips.

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