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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.