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