First published in the March 2010 issue of the Hearing Times
I’m hard of hearing, not hard of thinking, yet deafness has come up as a negative issue in about half of my job interviews, in a way that made me see just how little deaf awareness exists in the real world.
It started when I was 15. After waking up at the crack of dawn for two years to do a low-paid paper round, I got the chance to double my weekly income with a two week trial at the local fish and chip shop. The owner was friendly, and I really liked eating chips (!) so the job seemed perfect.
But the sound of frying fish and a tinny radio blaring out 90s tunes made the chippy very noisy, and the owner started double checking what the customers wanted every time I took an order. The funny thing was that I could lipread them really easily above the din, and every time she checked, she found I’d got it right.
It didn’t make any difference. Her paranoia got worse – or maybe she just needed an excuse to let me go. Either way, after the third night I worked there, she told me she couldn’t keep me on – for health and safety reasons..! As if I’d somehow fry my own hand in batter because I couldn’t hear very well.
It was the first time I’d been confronted with the outside world’s view of my deafness, and I sadly went back to the paper round, which, despite only paying £1.25 a day, at least left my clothes smelling of fresh air rather than battered fish.
Years later, shortly after finishing university I (mistakenly) thought that it’d be fun to be an estate agent, so I got an interview with a company in upmarket Henley-Upon-Thames.
In the first interview, I tried to turn my deafness and knowledge of sign language into a positive, and mentioned how I’d be able to communicate easily with deaf house-hunters. I was surprised when the interviewer (who turned out to be the son of the company boss), replied dismissively “there’s not many deaf people around.”
Somehow I got through to a second interview, where I spoke to a regional manager who was incredibly interested in the practicalities of wearing hearing aids. “What do they run on then?” he asked. “Er, batteries” I replied. “And what happens when they run out?” he followed up. “I… replace them,” I said, trying not to laugh. It wasn’t a positive experience, but I put up with it, and in the end, got the job.
Fast forward t0 2007. I’d escaped being a salesman in the countryside in favour of working in television in central London. It was all short-term contracts, and way you got a job was very informal. You’d get a phone call on a Friday evening and you’d be working with them for the next ten weeks, before changing companies again.
One job interview startled me around this time. I got asked to go for an interview at a company I’d already worked at (for six months) to talk to the producer of a new series because she was “concerned about working with a deaf person.”
I went along, chatted to her, and she soon realised there was nothing to worry about. But two things struck me.
One was that even when you’ve proved yourself with one set of people, you’re compelled to prove yourself all over again as soon as something changes which puts you in contact with new people – such as a new member of staff joining, the company getting a new client, and so on.
The second was a worry for people with a higher level of deafness than me. The producer was worried that I couldn’t use a phone – I am fortunate that I can. But what if I couldn’t? It would have been a big fat “no” for me. Even if I was good at every other aspect of the job.
These experiences left me with the impression that looking for a job when you’re deaf means you have to work even harder than a hearing person would, to get the same opportunities. It’s not fair, but it’s the real world, unfortunately.
More positively, my experience also tells me that if you do well, you’ll get past those barriers, and the people who doubted you will realise that deaf people really can do it. So don’t give up.