Pardon?

I wasn’t very good at languages at school. I could do the reading and writing bit, when I had time to reflect and think, but the spontaneous conversation (definitely the most important aspect) was quite frankly my worst nightmare. I remember sitting in nervous anticipation of being summoned in for my French GCSE oral exam. My palms were beyond sweaty and anxiety levels at a peak. That said one of the highlights for me of studying French was the introduction to the brilliance of the French farce. Our teacher would often show us French films twice once with subtitles on and a second time without them to help us improve our abilities to interpret. It built a passion for me that continued past my school days and my favourite French comedy is one I discovered at University called Le Dîners de Cons. If you can get hold of a copy I highly recommend it…

Le Diner de Cons, a fabulously funny French film

Anyway I digress, this week’s blog post is a day early and in recognition of Disability Time to Talk Day (4th Feb). With all of us wearing masks indoors I have missed the ability to connect with others through facial expression when I have made rare forays to the shops. With meetings taking place on Zoom, WebEx or Microsoft Teams the body language signals are missed, especially when we choose to turn off our cameras (often because we are virtual meeting exhausted).

So what does all of this preamble relate to? Misgivings about my ineptitude with foreign languages. Failed attempts to connect with other shoppers. Virtual groundhog day throughout the working week. The sum of my reflections is that while I have recognised that lockdown has been tiring for me – it must be incredibly difficult for my colleagues with hearing loss.

There have been a number of colleagues who have confided in me that they rely on lip reading to ‘hear’. At work it has taken us time to use subtitles on videos as standard. Some friends and colleagues had never disclosed they had hearing loss before but lockdown and mask wearing has immediately posed them challenges. What compounds this issue is when they have had to constantly remind colleagues to keep their cameras on or not cover up their mouths when speaking in work meetings. I cannot explain how draining and demoralising it is to be compelled to repeatedly ask for something simple to enable your engagement and involvement. If you want to empathise though try watching a foreign language film you’ve never seen before without the subtitles on…

Parasite, a wonderful film that would have been totally wasted on me without subtitles

So a small ask this week. Speak to your colleagues. If you are the type of person that prefers to turn your camera off for Zoom meetings ask others if they would mind. Take some time, especially today, to reach out and ask others if there are any changes or adjustments you could make to help them feel more included or aid their involvement. Be curious, be open, be kind. Choose empathy over sympathy. Let’s all work together to turn this year’s Time To Talk Day into a positive conversation about how we can work together to support our disabled colleagues.

Invisible

Just over 12 years ago I received a bit of a bombshell when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I say ‘bit’ because to be honest I knew the diagnosis was coming as I had recently lost all sensation from the neck down (that was not a particularly fun month). Accepting my condition was in truth the relatively easy part being able or willing to openly share with other people was much more challenging.

MS affects different people in different ways and for me this reflects a challenge inherent in our wider thinking about disability. Following my diagnosis, I became increasingly aware that as a nation we have a fixation on almost limiting our thoughts on disability to mobility. Despite this, we have failed to really address the barriers and limitations that we put in place for people with a mobility disability. At the same time, we fail to acknowledge the fact that disability is a much broader subject.

I have received unhelpful disapproving glares when compelled to use an accessible toilet. Felt ‘pressured’ into relinquishing my seat on public transport on days when I really needed a rest. Been scared to reveal my condition despite the fact it is under control and I am actually managing it rather well. I am conscious that much of this is internalised, but it stems from what I see and experience in the wider world. I actually carry certain perspectives as they were embedded in me before my diagnosis and shaking those off is really difficult. My biggest ongoing inner dialogue – “is it ok for me to use an accessible toilet”.

So how do we move forward? We need to have more open dialogue about disability. In my mind it is the way we have historically set things up that is the problem. In some ways I am pleased that the sunflower lanyard scheme is trying to help highlight that some of us may have ‘invisible’ disabilities but at the same time it is a bit depressing having to wear what equates to a giant badge publicly declaring there is more to me than meets the eye.

As an example of one thing we could change almost immediately. Why can’t job application forms state these are the adjustments we currently have in place as standard would any of these be of use to you and then go on to ask if there are any further or additional adjustments you would need? It’s a simple change but for me it reframes the conversation and suggests an organisation that wants me to perform at my best. I have seen some other organisations recently giving out the questions half an hour before the interview to enable a candidate to gather their thoughts and be their best self. As someone who occasionally struggles with ‘brain fog’ this would be an enormous help.

I would love to hear from others about positive steps you have seen or experienced. I am interested and curious to know what are the changes we could make to help you feel a greater sense of welcome and belonging? Please leave your reflections below, let’s keep them constructive and map out the positive shifts we could support to make meaningful and lasting change.

This will take some effort from all of us but #ImNotTired.

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