Gender, ethnicity, social mobility and LGBT continue to feature high on the diversity agenda in the PR industry, but who is talking about disability? We figured it’s an area that needs exploring and so asked Amy Rowe, an associate director at MRM, to share her experiences of working in PR with hearing loss.
A few months ago, I started telling the truth. My working week as an associate director for a PR agency had started like every other – in a news meeting. Typically, the entire company sits in a circle to go through the weekend’s papers, picking out any relevant coverage. It’s a meeting set up specifically to inform each of us and help us be better PRs. Unfortunately, it does absolutely nothing of the sort for me because I can’t hear it. I’m half deaf, which means that in large meetings in offices with air con, sounds from outside, phones ringing, the shuffling of papers – I really don’t hear much. For the past ten years of my career in media I’ve suffered through thousands of these meetings. I’ve got really good at nodding and laughing in the right places, and reading up about what was said later if I can. I’ve done well so far, I’m on the management team. But as much as I have achieved, I’m a bit tired. Listening is tiring, pretending to hear is more tiring still and missing out on crucial colleague bants (so often done under one’s breath) has made me feel left out.
‘What can we do better?’ they asked
After another wearisome meeting like this I decided enough was enough and told my employer the truth. They know I wear hearing aids of course, but what they perhaps didn’t know, is that hearing aids are not a magic bullet and that I was struggling. When I confessed, they were understanding and – obviously – mortified. ‘What can we do better?’ they asked. It was then that I did something you couldn’t have paid me to do a few years ago. I got up in a meeting and explained to colleagues that I had a problem. I then gave them tips on how to communicate with me better. Rather than call across the room (a perfectly normal occurrence in most open plan offices), ‘please come up to me and tap me on the shoulder’, I asked. Whatever you do, I asked, ‘wait ‘til I can see your face before we talk, because I lip read’.
One of them experienced problems with a disability too, and said she’d drawn strength from hearing somebody talk about it in a professional setting
I usually love public speaking, but I felt sick after – this was after all, not a pitch to a client – it was a rather self-conscious plea for help and I worried that they might take it as a criticism. But afterwards, my colleagues got in touch. ‘I had no idea,’ they said mostly, but also ‘THANK YOU.’ One of them experienced problems with a disability too, and said she’d drawn strength from hearing somebody talk about it in a professional setting. Best of all, the format of the news meeting has been changed. From this week, only a few colleagues will collate and deliver news stories in these meetings – meaning – I can sit right next to them and hear everything they say rather than switching between 20 voices in a circle.
Why has it taken so long for me to speak out? It’s a story that is sadly so familiar to many of us. I was bullied at school and called a ‘stupid deafo’ among other things. Gradually, I started to sit at the back of classes. I even stopped wearing my hearing aids for a while after someone laughed at how I looked. I vowed that no one would know I had a hearing problem – and I would be fine as long as no one knew. Even later on in my career, when I did tell employers I was hard of hearing, I’d trip over myself to say ‘but it is fine, you wouldn’t even know it.’
But I was lying to myself.
PR is a tough industry. We are experts at the written and spoken word. We need to be confident in delivery and our clients need to be utterly assured that they are in safe hands. So often the need to be infallible means we don’t talk about our problems enough. It’s taken me long enough to admit – I can’t do this on my own. Gone are the days where I let myself be put on the back foot with the client who whispers instructions across an empty boardroom or the static-y conference call between 15 faceless people. I’ve started speaking up immediately. It doesn’t take long. ‘I’m half deaf, and while I wear hearing aids in both ears, it doesn’t always help.’ The response is always good. Sometimes I have to repeat it, because people forget within 30 minutes – but that’s okay.
Hearing loss is an unseen disability and that brings challenges
Sometimes people say ‘I had no idea,’ but that’s okay too. Hearing loss is an unseen disability and that brings challenges, particularly in the field of communication. But with one in six people across the UK with some form of hearing loss, according to Action on Hearing Loss figures, anyone who claims to be a communications expert needs to get proactive in helping create the kind of culture in the workplace where people feel they can speak out and that things can get better. So, my fellow PRs, if you’re reading this and about to head off for a large team meeting with someone who is hard of hearing, you know what to do. That’s right – ask them if you could do any better. There are solutions out there, but they require three things: an open and supportive culture; a little bit of bravery; and making sure the lines of communication are open at all times.