Do you have a beard? An accent? Are you tired? Are you in a rush? Chances are I can’t read your lips?

Do you have a beard? An accent? Are you tired? Are you in a rush? Do you put your hands on your face whilst you’re talking? Are you wearing a mask? Do you take advantage of multiple screens to multitask in meetings? Chances are, I can’t read your lips.

Working in a hearing workplace I rely on a combination of intelligence, assistive technology and luck to perform my work.

With my hearing aids in, all sound is amplified. Who knew keyboards make a sound when you hit them too hard? Teams pings every time you get a message. Outlook chimes every time you have a meeting reminder. An open plan office as busy as KPMG can mean tens of people on the phone at once. My head hurts, the noise is non-stop. My brain cannot distinguish what is background noise and what I need to focus on. How do you concentrate? Active noise cancelling headphone mode – hearing aids off. Silence. Bliss. Hearing aids amply all sound – they do not provide clarity.

I notice movement on my left, two team members are coming back with coffees. They smile. They asked if I wanted to come, but I was on a call. In the era of air pods, it’s easy to think someone ignoring you is code for I’m on a call. In my case however, it’s the choice between feeling like I am in a rock concert or disconnecting from the hearing world. Shame I missed the opportunity, ah well next time.

Moments later I look up and three of my fellow KPMG colleagues are having a laugh. I wonder what was funny? The short casual interactions always breakup the day, ease the pressure of the deadlines. I get a weird look – I’m staring. Smiling I look away – note-to-self, intense staring at lips is weird for the broader public.

Time for me to hop into a meeting. Hearing aids in. Volume 100%. Noise cancelling headphones over the top. Volume 100%. Captions on.

One colleague shuffles around as they get their headset sorted.

How was your widget? Did you have fan? Jail and I went bow tailing with pigs.

Nodding and smiling – all positive body language. I emulate. Ooo interesting, how was that?

[lag lag] More shuffling. Nodding and smiling awkwardly too long as I wait for –

Grape. Really worth smiles.

The host has joined. Awesome! Takes a sip of coffee. Everyone here is married.

Hmmm. Marred…parried, sarried…Everyone here is…

…really focusing on human rights and social syntax…

Lol.

…in the barking sector we have some great closure, Sarah can speak to this…

Ermm.

Another colleague pipes up, head facing the camera, mic directly in front of their face. Sarah why don’t you speak to the current engagement we are on, as we have just discussed, we have a lot of exposure in the banking sector but why not start with what we are currently doing.

Phew.

Captions can be incredibly empowering – or they can lag, mix-up sounds and change the word weekend to widget. In case you missed it; I was asked if I had fun on the weekend, my colleague and their partner went bowling with their kids, everyone on the call had met previously and we were talking about the great exposure our human rights and social impact services have had in the banking sector.

The drain of concentrating and trying to pull meaning from fragments of a conversation is real. As a consultant I can have days filled with meetings. I experience fatigue, headaches, and most of all odd looks when I start to talk about something totally random whilst the rest of the participants are engrained in their conversation.  In my social life, frequent words in my vocabulary include ‘huh?’, ‘what?’, ‘pardon’ and ‘sorry I don’t have my ears in’. In a professional context, this appearance of not paying attention means I am viewed as disengaged or disinterested.

My last line of defence is the ability to read human behaviour and lips. Matching body language to sounds to produce context and meaning. Inventing creative ways to ask for more information and watching for mouth patterns. Lip reading I am told, though please don’t quote me on it, is only about 30% accurate. I am also told that it is my hidden talent. When you go for a hearing test they perform a range of tests to try and work out how much you can hear, and how much you are deducing from context. For example, they will ask you to say the last word in a sentence – but make the last word nonsense. I went to the shop to buy some midday. You do this being able to see the assessor, and again with the assessor’s mouth covered. I go from a 9/10 to a 1/10.

I said that my hidden talent is my last line of defence, but that this only partially true. More than anything what enables me to participate are the people around me – my colleagues, managers and the broader KPMG community.

A truly inclusive workplace is one that is vigilant and open to nuance. Every experience I shared above is easily fixed – but it requires a change in behaviour of almost everyone around me. Learning basic signs, focusing on clear speech, being comfortable waving your arms around until I see movement (you can tap me on the shoulder but pre warning – I will jump as in my world you have appeared from nowhere). This requires an environment that people with disability are comfortable and supported to share their nuances, for those to be embraced.

We are at an exciting yet critical time for disability rights. The balance between innovative and inclusive, daring and discriminatory needs to be held tightly. Australian businesses have an incredible opportunity but also a responsibility to uphold and advocate for people with disability.

Read our full Disability and Inclusion Plan

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26 thoughts on “Do you have a beard? An accent? Are you tired? Are you in a rush? Chances are I can’t read your lips?

  1. Perspectives are important and thanks for reminding that people conversating with you have their own perspectives and reasons for the way they think, speak and act. It’s easy to judge someone but it is very difficult to understand and accept their perspectives. Your article is truly something of a different perspective which I have not experienced yet, but certainly a reminder to be more attentive and empathetic to other’s perspectives. Thanks a lot for that!

  2. A great article Sarah..nailed it on the head :). Great to be raising this type of awareness and making it known.

  3. Sarah – you have helped me learn – I will be more aware in the workplace. Thank you for such an enlightening and thought provoking piece.

  4. Great and insightful! I learnt a lot more about things that I thought I already know. It was also interesting that although I have no challenges with hearing, I could relate to some of those experiences from another diversity lens. I’ve worked in countries that their native language is my 2nd and 3rd language which puts me in the same position of trying to complete what I’m hearing with the context and guessing some of the words to keep up with my colleagues. So probably not at the same level but to some extents I feel the frustration. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  5. Beautifully written article – and great to hear about life in another person’s shoes. Thanks so much for sharing, Sarah!

  6. Thank you Sarah for opening up our eyes and ears to the challenges of a hearing impairment. Your piece is a reminder of the courage those with disabilities show each day and the positive impact that workplace changes can have on their lives.

  7. Thank you for sharing your story Sarah. Having a daughter who has hearing difficulties, I am becoming far more aware that we all have more work to make our work places more inclusive for all.

  8. Thanks so much Sarah for sharing your personal experience and in a way that helps us support you to do your best work every day.

  9. Thanks for sharing your experience in such a detailed way – so many aspects I never would have been aware of or considered before. This is such a generous way to share and create awareness.

  10. Sarah, thank you again for sharing your story as well and shining a light on how we can better support people thrive and feel more powerful and strong at work.

  11. Thank you for sharing these detailed experience when you interacted with people around and remotely. I really appreciate you are open to share these true feelings, which enables and reminds people be more considerable and aware in the future. I am so proud of being your colleague and having you as my Buddy. As an Asian immigrant, I have accent without doubts, however luckily I have no beard. I will be more conscious of speaking clearly and being a better colleague.

  12. Thank you for sharing Sarah. I’m incredibly grateful to work with such a bright, professional and skilled colleague such as you and your story is a great reminder that it’s our collective role to dismantle obstacles and difficulties, and this only comes through education and behaviour and practice change. You’ve prompted me to do exactly that – change some of my practices to ensure I get full access to your excellent brain! That’s my job, not yours 🙂

  13. Thanks for sharing this, your examples were brilliant, and there are a lot to learn from and apply in our daily communications

  14. Sarah you are eloquent as always, making your experience accessible to all of us. We’re so lucky to have you in our team, teaching us to be better colleague and humans!

  15. Sarah you are eloquent as always, making your experience accessible to all of us. We’re so lucky to have you in our team teaching us to be better colleagues and humans!

  16. Thanks for sharing Sarah. I too have a hearing impairment. You have explained it perfectly so that those without an impairment can appreciate the challenges.

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