As a child, I was always an avid reader, perhaps because my general lack of coordination meant I was so terrible at sport. I read anything and everything; consuming every book in my parents house and the local library several times over before I went to secondary school. One book that made a lasting impression on me, and first got me interested in politics was the brilliant ‘Yes Minister Diaries’. I was ambitious but confident that if I worked hard enough, I too could find myself in Whitehall. I was driven from an early age to make my mark on the world if I could.
Finding out I had a rare genetic illness that would take my hearing made me scale back my ambitions and this was probably the greatest mistake (I have made many) I ever made. I assumed that there was no future for me in Whitehall where I had impending deafness hanging over me. Training and qualifying as a teacher seemed like a stable choice; if I couldn’t be one of the leaders of the country then perhaps I could inspire FUTURE leaders instead?
I had 6 great years as a teacher and head of department before my hearing finally and very quickly gave up the ghost. I struggled on for another five years but had lost the tenacity and drive than I once had. I struggled to engage with the students in the classroom because I didn’t get the right support to enable me to do my job effectively. My employer had no idea how to support me or use me effectively and because I didn’t know any different, I just accepted the fact that this was the best I could do.
Leaving a well paid and senior position in education when you are profoundly deaf, have long-term health issues and a young family to support is not going to be easy. I struggled for many months looking for a new career and despite a promising start with some interviews, I was getting nowhere. Applying to the Civil Service on a whim after seeing an advert for a graduate programme seemed like a long shot, for someone who had graduated 15 years ago and couldn’t hear.
Yet from the word go, things were different. The recruiters seemed genuinely interested in what I said. They were proactive in working out how best to support me through the recruitment process and recognised a potential I had forgotten I once had. With their support and encouragement I was lucky and won a place on the Civil Service Fast Stream. It looked like I was off the Whitehall after all!
Starting in a new organisation, surrounded by strangers in an entirely new profession is daunting. Starting there when you cannot hear anything either was terrifying. Whilst my new employers were happy to organise any support that I felt I needed, neither I nor they really knew what was available or suitable in the highly-sensitive environment in which I was now working. We tried notetakers, volunteer scribes, on-site palantypists, frantically scribbling things on post it notes and whilst everyone was very supportive, I don’t think that I was really getting the opportunity to be my best. After six months battling to find ways to make it work I was introduced to Lipspeaker’s UK by an inspirational deafened woman who used them to support her launch and build her own company.
Straight away I realised Lipspeakers were the right choice for me. Having a face to face interpreter not only helped me to understand what was going on, it put others at ease too. Great lipspeakers are not just there to help the deaf/deafened client follow conversation but to act as facilitators enabling me to communicate with others effectively. They support me in interacting with peers and senior leaders who might not be familiar at working with people with hearing loss; it’s very much a two way process. Their flexibility finding me support at the last minute, all over the country in a huge range of locations from prisons to Parliament has meant that my deafness does not hold me back like I thought it would.
Using lipspeakers has enabled me to play on a level playing field and to achieve despite the communication barriers I face. I am becoming a much more effective leader and actually having these barriers has made me a better communicator because I am concise and direct with my words (sometimes TOO direct!).
Having now finished the Fast Stream and the Masters that accompany it I am looking forward to the next step in my career. Lipspeaker UK has empowered me and have had no small part in my successfully completing and passing both a highly-competitive programme and a gruelling Masters of Science. They have taught me that it’s OK to say ‘I can’t access this’; to be bold and decisive about the support that you need to be your best; to not to take no for an answer and above all to be open with people. Explain what your preferred communication method is and help others by making it quite clear what they can do to support you and communicate with you more effectively. I can assure you, they will thank you for it and are likely far more apprehensive about getting it wrong than you may be.
The lessons I have learned so far on my Whitehall journey are obviously unique to me and now having met and worked alongside many hearing impaired and Deaf colleagues, I fully understand each has individual communication needs and preferences. I have used my contacts and experiences to work alongside other brilliant Civil Servants to co-found the Civil Service Hearing Network; giving a voice to those who have hearing difficulties, care for those who do or have an interest in finding out what more they can do to work alongside the 1 in 7 of the population who class themselves as Deaf/deaf/deafened/hearing. impaired/with a hearing loss. Each will describe themselves using a different terminology with which they are most comfortable. What they all have in common is that they want to be defined by what they CAN do, regardless of the communication barriers they may face. Follow us, our work and the high-achievers in our network on Twitter @CShearnetwork