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December 2, 2022

How to move employees from the margins to the mainstream

Just as people with a disability have to adapt to the workplace, it’s also up to the workplace to adapt to their needs.

Too often, people with a disability find themselves marginalized in the workplace. But it doesn’t need to be that way. As a person with hearing loss, I don’t see my lack of hearing as the problem—but a lack of understanding about it can be.

Creating a more accessible workplace is really a matter of the people in the workplace broadening their view beyond their own experience. I liken this to my role in corporate governance: It’s my job to be a company’s peripheral vision with respect to protecting personal data, which means that as my colleagues work within their lanes, I keep an eye on what’s outside those lanes.

When colleagues exercise that same “looking outside your lane” perspective on behalf of everyone, the result is a company culture that’s accessible to employees who have hearing difficulties like me but also more broadly for anyone who might otherwise remain in the margins.

Life in the quiet world

My bilateral sensorineural hearing loss developed at an early age, probably caused by a childhood illness. Essentially, I’m very hard of hearing, a bit like an aged aunt, with little or no hearing in the conversational range that is affectionately known as the “speech banana.” This means:

  • I can't differentiate between sibilant sounds like s, z and sh unless I am looking at you.

  • I try to fill in the gaps of what I can't hear, which leads to some really strange conversations.

  • I look before I cross the road—in both directions.

  • In general, my world is very quiet, but anyone who gets in my car after me needs to remember to turn the radio off before starting the engine.

  • Lip reading is tiring. I'm not yawning because I'm bored or was out late the night before.

I don’t think of my deafness as a loss; I just can’t hear. And that’s a key point: Not everyone with a disability considers themselves incomplete or in need of fixing—we consider ourselves to be just fine as we are. In fact, our need to continuously adapt makes us realize how flexible we can be.

So, when asking for workplace adaptations to give us easier access, we aren’t asking for a big lift. We’re asking you to make the step we sit on more comfortable.

Three steps to a more accessible workplace

I’m always surprised when I’m recruited for disability-themed events for my “expertise” because having some form of impairment forces you to make accommodations rather than acquiring them though choice. To make room for everyone, all it takes is some understanding and adapting.

Here are three actions you can take right now to break down barriers for hearing impaired colleagues and customers.

  1. Turn your camera on. During videoconferences, I rely on a combination of lip reading and onscreen captioning. I don’t use hearing aids because they replace hearing I’ve never had, and wearing them creates “brain fog.” (Imagine the sensation of lots of sensory messages flying at you all at the same time.)

    While none of us would attend an in-person meeting with a bag on our heads, I (still) regularly find myself having to ask co-workers to turn on their video during calls. Cameras should always be on. The lone exception is when you pause during the meeting to take a call on your phone. Don’t just mute your audio—switch off your video as well. Lip reading is my superpower!

  2. Simplify your PowerPoint slides. The upside of this advice goes companywide. During a video call, it’s not uncommon for me to be busily reading lips, watching on-screen captions and doing a bit of contextual mental hangman only to have a co-worker’s screenshare suddenly display a crowded, inscrutable PPT slide. You know the ones: words and diagrams shoehorned into every inch of space.

    I’m unable to juggle the task of processing the slide’s contents and the speaker’s narration—and I’m willing to bet others on the call can’t either. The lesson? Prioritize your message for each slide and streamline its contents. Less is more, and more readable. (I haven’t won this battle yet, but hope springs eternal.)

  3. Create inclusive policies—and promote them. Develop company protocols that emphasize inclusivity, so I don’t have to keep asking. Every time someone with a disability asks for an adjustment, we’re required to reveal something personal of ourselves that others typically aren’t.

    Yes, there’s strength in vulnerability—but not when it’s asked of you in the workplace on a daily basis. It’s particularly annoying to have to ask for the same thing of the same people over and over again.

We need to ask difficult questions as a company: Are we creating an accessible workplace in which people with a disability can be productive and do their best work? Let’s adapt so you no longer have to look for us in the margins. That’s not where we want to be.

Hellen Beveridge
Senior Manager, Data Responsibility & Privacy Delivery
Digitally Cognizant author Hellen Beveridge

Hellen Beveridge is a subject matter expert in the Data Responsibility and Privacy Delivery Guild at Cognizant. She runs a client's privacy office and works in the team to elevate knowledge, connectivity and expertise.

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