https://civilservice.blog.gov.uk/2018/03/16/personal-disability-stories-part-3-hannahs-story/

Personal disability stories: Part 3 – Hannah's story

Philip Rutnam, Perm Secretary for the Department for Transport and Civil Service Disability Champion
Philip Rutnam, Permanent Secretary for the Home Office, and Civil Service Disability Champion

In November and January, I published the first and second in a series of blogs showcasing the personal disability stories of civil servants. To date, we have heard from more experienced disabled colleagues, but what about those new to the Civil Service?

This third blog features Hannah, who offers us a different perspective as a younger member of staff who joined the Civil Service just 15 months ago. Her story illustrates the importance of being able to bring your full self to work, and of considering someone by their other important individual characteristics, not just their disability.

In Hannah’s case, she says her feminism and Jewish identity are equally important and, alongside her disability, interlink to drive her values and beliefs.

Hannah's story

If you saw me walking around the office, you’d probably never suspect that I had a disability. In fact, I’m so often told that I ‘don’t look deaf’ that I’ve even found myself wondering whether my 60% hearing loss is that much of a big deal. But in reality it’s had a profound impact on my life since infancy – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m really proud to identify as disabled and to be a young advocate for disability awareness. It’s hugely important to me that I can bring my full self to work, whether that relates to being open about my feminism, my Jewish identity or my disabilities. Yet while that’s certainly been the case for most of my adult life, I haven’t always felt that the word ‘disabled’ was really applicable to me. Much of that is to do with the environment I grew up in – I was so deeply involved in my hearing Jewish community that it was hard as a child to find room for two powerful (and often political) identities.

Hearing loss

When I was five weeks old, I contracted streptococcus and was given powerful life-saving antibiotics. I was a terrible toddler who could never be quietened, and when I started school, I was distinctly middle of the class. It wasn’t until I failed my school hearing test aged five that anyone suspected those antibiotics might have had longer term consequences. It soon transpired that I had moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears, and it was primarily through lip-reading that I had taught myself to speak, read and write. I was sent home with my first pair of hearing aids – bright purple and glittery, of course – and found out what it was like when you could hear the teacher.

It wasn’t until university that I was confronted by ableism (intolerance towards those with disabilities) and inaccessibility. Issues would pop up all over the place, from videos and podcasts being set as compulsory reading (for which no transcripts or captions were provided), to note-takers giving me handwritten and illegible notes at the end of seminars.

My MA was even trickier, needing to follow seminars that drew on a number of verbal languages – Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino and Arabic – without sufficient support. It was at this time that my ability to navigate the hearing world with little visible distress began to work against me; I was told over and over again that what could be done had, and that I should just try my best. Seeming as if I could cope, no-one fully believed me when I said something was inaccessible. My involvement in student union politics helped to me to reclaim a proud disabled identity to challenge this, and I began advocating for greater disability awareness wherever I could.

Personal empowerment

When I entered the Civil Service 15 months ago as part of the Government Communication Service, my disability was already a source of personal empowerment. I wrote guidance for working with hearing impaired colleagues, and worked closely with the Disability Network to help the newly formed Department for International Trade attain its Disability Confidence Level 3 accreditation. There have also been some unexpected moments – I once transcribed a keynote leadership speech by lip-reading a video after audio failed to record! Naturally, there have also been challenges, such as managing teleconference calls, needing subtitles in departmental videos, and struggling with fatigue after long meetings lip-reading.

However, I’ve been privileged to benefit from great mentorship while navigating these challenges, in particular from former Civil Service Disability Network (CSDN) Chair Jeanette Rosenberg.

Moving to Public Health England I’ve learned that I can be my best by striving to educate with kindness wherever I go, hoping to encourage both disabled and able-bodied civil servants to view disability in a positive light.

Speaking out

Having a disability can feel challenging – even overwhelming – at times. But it’s not usually because of having something ‘wrong’ with you that obstacles arise at work or socially. Rather, they’re caused by lack of provision and understanding, or from an outside perception that disability only looks or sounds a certain way. In reality, disability affects all of our lives somehow – even if we’re only 24!

Outside my Civil Service role, I’m lucky to have spoken in the UK and abroad about the importance of equality. I’m confident that by playing my part as a civil servant and, more broadly, as an outspoken disabled woman, I can help to make our society a better place for everyone.

Insights

Aside from the importance of looking beyond a person’s disability and recognising the multitude of characteristics and interconnections that create our individual identity, Hannah’s personal story highlights several other useful insights.

Firstly, the non-visible barriers that many disabled colleagues face on a daily basis. For instance, we may not realise that a disabled colleague with hearing loss who has been lip reading during a lengthy meeting can experience fatigue afterwards. Similarly, a person with a stammer may consume considerable energy in identifying different words for specific situations to hide their stammer. A colleague with ME attending a full-day event may feel exhausted afterwards if they have not been allowed breaks to manage their energy levels.

In each of these cases, the effort involved is often not apparent to others, which is why we need to get to know the whole person.

Graphic with legend 'A great place to work'Secondly, I was struck by Hannah’s comments regarding the value and benefits that she gained from having a great mentor in Jeanette. Mentoring a disabled colleague can be mutually beneficial and I would encourage everyone to consider it.

Finally, my thanks to Hannah for sharing her inspiring story and personal insights.

Follow Philip on Twitter: @PhilipRutnam.

32 comments

  1. Comment by Jonathan Nancekivell-Smith, MoD Disability Champion posted on

    Hannah, thanks for sharing your inspiring story. The frustrating challenge disabled colleagues sometimes face through the inadvertent ignorance of another can make a tough job tougher. I like your label of 'Ableism', I had never thought of barrier in that way. Good luck.

    • Replies to Jonathan Nancekivell-Smith, MoD Disability Champion>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Jonathan, thanks for your comments. Ableism is an effective term to describe unhelpful behaviours towards colleagues with disabilities. We can individually seek to tackle this by completing appropriate learning activities such as Unconscious Bias and Becoming Disability Confident.

  2. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Hannah for your honest and open reflections. I commend the way in which you have sought to overcome your personal challenges and looked to support / inspire others. I also want to congratulate you for being able to be authentic at work.

    Unfortunately from my observations over the past few years as an advocate of Diversity and Inclusion I note that for many having a non visible disability can present a greater challenge than the actual disability itself.

    Whilst the situation has significantly improved since I joined the organisation 27 years ago, to my disapointment there is still a lack of awareness and understanding from some Managers and colleagues about how to support someone with a particular disability and how reasonable workplace adjustments can make such a difference.

    I commend the fantasic work that Sir Philip Rutnam as the Civil Service Diversity Champion and the various Staff Associations do to seek better understanding and awareness and their efforts to make the workplace more inclusive.

    As Sir Philip is very much aware of, the FCO Staff Association ENABLE and its Chair Alex Freegard has contributed much effort into making the Organisation more Disability Smart and Managers more Disability Confident. Staff are now feeling more empowered to be open about the challenges that they face and talk about how they were able to overcome them.

    Anyway, thank you Hannah for sharing your personal journey so far and I wish you well for the future.

    • Replies to Gavin Thomas>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Gavin, thanks for taking the time to share your observations. It is disappointing that non-visible disability can present a greater challenge than the actual disability itself.
      As well as the FCO, all the major government departments have achieved Disability Confident level 3 status, which signifies a great commitment and resolve to continue to build more open inclusive workplaces. It is encouraging to hear that staff are now feeling more empowered. Cultural change can take time, but we are moving positively in the right direction.

  3. Comment by Dave Havery posted on

    a truly inspiring story, thanks for sharing

  4. Comment by Jo posted on

    Many thanks Hannah for sharing. I've learnt something about hearing loss today.

    My observation is that where people with invisible disabilities are seen to generally be coping well, it can be easy not to understand what that 'coping well' costs to achieve.

    • Replies to Jo>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Thanks for your comments Jo. I agree, there may be more awareness work that can be done to highlight this.

  5. Comment by Ruth Ashton-Ward posted on

    What a wonderful and inspiring blog! And I am glad that you say that you are 'proud' of and feel empowered by the disabled element of 'you', as I do too, I thought I was weird at first but I realise that this is just part of what makes me 'me', so I embrace it.
    I echo the thoughts about fatigue too, another hidden illness - depression (which I have) also takes a heavy toll on ones' body too, as a remote worker, travelling is especially tiring and can impair ones daily performance, so I try to educate people gently about this too.

    • Replies to Ruth Ashton-Ward>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Ruth, it is encouraging to hear you resonate with Hannah on pride, positivity and empowerment. We need more of this to encourage others to feel comfortable enough to 'bring their whole self' to work. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Comment by T. Springthorpe posted on

    Thanks Hannah for your very interesting story, this is the first time I've heard of the label Ableism.

    I can totally understand the frustration of having a non visible disability being hearing impaired myself, you are left feeling very tired after long meetings trying to keep up with what is being said. I sometimes find it impossible. I believe there is a lot more to be done in educating people about hearing impairment and other non visable disabilities (a lot of people sadly still think disability is something they can see)

    It's good to see a confident young woman like yourself taking a stance like this, I wish you well for the future

    • Replies to T. Springthorpe>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      T. Springthorpe, thanks for your encouraging comments.There is a theme emerging here of creating greater awareness around non-visible disability, the impact on individuals and what can be done to create more inclusive meeting protocol. I would encourage you to share your experiences and insights with your department disability champion. This could lead to running awareness sessions to educate others.

  7. Comment by Gary Petitjean posted on

    A great article and insight. I have various health issues hidden and (in my eyes obvious). It's actually my visible disability that gets missed (Maffucci's Syndrome). It can be embarrassing when you have to say you cannot do certain things or when you have to ask someone for their seat on a packed Metro (cos ye cannot hold handrails for long). They see a 6 foot, 17.5 stone, 50 year old bloke. They don't understand (or believe) that I am in constant pain/discomfort and can have pins and needles and numbness. Don't get me started about buying stuff with cash. Trying to catch change in a hand with 2 fingers missing is quite difficult. Money often flies everywhere as change isn't placed in palm of hand, but where fingers used to be. Again very embarrassing. Whoops!! getting a bit carried away.

    A really good piece of work, which highlights the issue well.

    • Replies to Gary Petitjean>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Gary, thanks for sharing details of your own disability and the specific challenges you face. It conveys a powerful message of the day to day lived experience of many colleagues with non-visible disabilities.

  8. Comment by Lisa Turner posted on

    I found this article very thought provoking, as someone with hearing loss and only been using a hearing aid for just over 18months and not feeling confident about declaring myself as disabled you have given me much to ponder on. Thank you

    • Replies to Lisa Turner>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Lisa, thanks for your openness in sharing your personal journey. There are many sources of support that may be helpful to you. The Civil Service Workplace Adjustments team may be a helpful starting point, as well as discussions with your line manager. There are also Deafness Awareness training sessions for your team/colleagues which may enhance understanding on how to be more inclusive.

  9. Comment by Talal posted on

    A truly Inspirational and emotional blog Hannah! I have shared the story on the Acas Yammer site. I hope everyone across the civil service has a chance to read this.

  10. Comment by Jane Taylor posted on

    Thank you Hannah for a very insightful article on the challenges of being disabled. I recognise much here, including the tiredness from just trying to keep up with what is going on around you. Office environments are often not conducive to helping those with hearing impairments (high ceilings, sharp echoing surfaces, open-plan offices, inflexible systems etc) and these are other ways in which work presents barriers to everyone being able to participate to their full abilities. I like the purple glittery hearing aids - where can I get some of those?

    • Replies to Jane Taylor>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Jane, thanks for your comment. There may be adjustments that can be put in place to help you in your office. The Civil Service Workplace Adjustments Team may be a helpful starting point, as well as discussions with your line manager.

  11. Comment by Jason Dyson posted on

    Thanks for your blog Hannah, it gave a fascinating insight into your career in the Civil Service. It made me think about invisible barriers, and how we are all empowered to make improvements to make our place of work better for all our colleagues.

    • Replies to Jason Dyson>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Jason, thanks for your comments. I agree, there is a collective responsibility and commitment required to ensure we work together to build inclusive work spaces where we all feel empowered.

    • Replies to Jason Dyson>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Jenny, I am pleased to read that you are feeling more positive following Hannah sharing her inspiring story.

  12. Comment by Jenny Mohan posted on

    Thanks, this was really empowering and inspiring to read. It's so important that we make the right changes in the workplace for disabled colleagues with a whole range of needs. I'm on a lifelong learning process about my disability, and one comment here really chimed with me about my disability being glaringly obvious to me, but not to others - which is, itself, really fatiguing. Right now it feels like an uphill struggle, but reading this made me feel like it will get better. Thank you.

  13. Comment by Richard H posted on

    I am delighted that Hannah has found a way to feel fully involved at work and is empowered as a disabled woman to pursue her career despite her hidden disability. It is clear that she has had tremendous support from Senior managers within her area of the civil service and that is very encouraging. Unfortunately not all areas of the civil service are as enlightened, in my experience, with many disabled staff facing continuing discrimination on a daily basis. Often managers are unwilling to follow OHS advice, even when the advice is repeated again and again. In addition there is an unwillingness or refusal to implement reasonable adjustments, despite medical advice stating it would be beneficial to all concerned and even if the disabled person concerned has had the reasonable adjustment successfully in another part of the civil service.
    Generally speaking, line managers are not equipped or trained to deal with issues around mental illness and don't know how to deal with problems when they arise or make allowances for it.
    As a former union rep I represented many members of staff who faced discrimination as a result of their disabilities and I myself have also encountered and continue to face difficulties because of physical disabilities and mental health issues.
    If only we could all find the kind of support that Hannah has received and could fulfil our potential at work then the civil service and we would all be the better for it.

    • Replies to Richard H>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Richard, thanks for making the important point that there is more work still to be done to widen the net of support so that colleagues with disabilities feel supported across all Civil Service business areas.

      On adjustments, we are establishing centrally comprehensive MI (management information) data to provide assurance that all staff are receiving consistent access to timely and effective workplace adjustments. In regard to upskilling line managers, there are some excellent training products available on the Civil Service Learning portal, such as Becoming Disability Confident, Disability inclusive management, and Leading inclusive teams. Finally, as mentioned in this blog, Mental Health First Aiders or equivalent are doing great work to increase mental health awareness.

  14. Comment by Jonathan Holman posted on

    Hannah. Thanks for sharing your journey dealing with a disability. I too have deafness and so share your experience with leaving a long difficult meeting often fatigued. I also find people often don't really understanding deafness and line managers are not properly trained to is "giving time for the dust to settle" and everthing to start making sense. So I value colleagues who give me the time to digest what has support.
    A common misnomer is that partial deafness is like poor eyesight. People often think that wearing hearing aids or being provided reasonable support is like wearing a pair of glasses - everything is corrected and made right - which often isn't the perfect case. You are missing the ability to hear certain sound frequencies. Therefore, you have to a spend more time to process, interpret and validate speec. This can apply a particular mental strain that affects your capacity to think and perform. Clinically, the term audio neuropathy is starting to be used to define the mismatch between what is heard and then understood. So my favourite analogue been said and don't expect a direct response.

    • Replies to Jonathan Holman>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Jonathan - you highlight an important point that many of us do not fully understand the challenges experienced by colleagues with specific disabilities such as deafness. Thanks for sharing your personal insights to raise awareness and bust some commonly held misconceptions.

  15. Comment by Donna C posted on

    Thank you for sharing Hannah , I am too deaf and its good to know I am not alone with the difficulties you have experienced especially the fatigue issues !
    Your story has raised more awareness , like you I have been very fortunate to have recieved wonderful support from my manager and I have a great team who all understand my disability , and take time in meetings to ensure I dont miss out anything ! I feel my disability has defined me who I am and made me a good teamleader , and I'm proud of it 🙂

    • Replies to Donna C>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Donna, thanks for sharing your positive experience. It's great to hear the wonderful support you have received and how this has helped you to be a good team leader. You are right to be proud of your achievements.

  16. Comment by Helen Clark posted on

    Hannah, Many thanks for sharing your story 🙂

    And Philip, thank you for posting this encouraging blog and for your recognition of the hidden efforts that our really dedicated people are putting into their work.

    Do you perhaps know what Hannah's solution to the problem of understanding teleconference calls might be? And is it something that can be implemented in other areas of the CS? I'm looking for something that could be used within MOD and would really appreciate some more information on this please.

    • Replies to Helen Clark>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Helen, thank you for your comment. I’m glad you find the blog encouraging and a useful way to highlight the skills, stories and talents of Civil Servants with disabilities.
      Hannah has a number of suggestions, including: taking conference calls in a separate room; sending around key points and actions afterwards; and speaking in shorter sentences, with pauses. If you’d like to find out more, then please contact disability.inclusion@cabinetoffice.gov.uk