Tuesday 29 September 2020

Deaf Girly's return to work

When I went on maternity leave last August, one of the things I never considered was that I'd be returning to work in the middle of a global pandemic. But in May this year, that's just what I did.

Before I went on maternity leave, I had been working both in the office and from home and it was great. I'd have video calls with my colleagues around the world at odd times in my pyjamas and then head into the office to have real-life meetings and conversations. I liked this balance.

My deafness is a tough one when it comes to speech. I can hear the human voice quite well, but the clarity of what is being said is completely missing. It's like I'm living in a world where everyone speaks a different language to me. This means that when I chat to someone, I am completely reliant on lipreading and context guesswork to understand what they are saying.

This. Is. An. Exhausting. Existence.

When I was at school, I was statemented in order to get additional support. Someone from the council came and observed me in my 70-minute lessons and established that I have a hearing ability of just 40 minutes. After 40 minutes of listening, lipreading and guessing, I completely zone out. How did she discover this? Because after 40 minutes, I was fast asleep at my desk.

One time, I actually woke myself up sleep talking in my history A Level lesson.

Anyway, returning to a completely remote working set up challenged me in ways I never anticipated. Before I had perhaps a 60/40 split of calls versus real-world conversations. Now all my conversations take place over a video call. And do you know what? I don't find them easy.

And over the last few months, I've found myself questioning the value of my contributions to my team. The value of what I offer. I've felt like an outsider colleague. And I'd been struggling to put my finger on quite what was going wrong.

But yesterday in a call, I finally realised what it was.

One of my amazing team members is in Portugal. I work very closely with her and yesterday we were working on a really important document and editing it live over a Teams call.

I was doing the editing and was lipreading her over the screen - using the subtitles for support - to ensure that both our thoughts were included in the edit. However, what I realised was that even though I was 'hearing' what she was saying, I was so focused on piecing it all together that my brain forgot to retain it.

I would literally 'hear' whole sentences and two seconds later think, 'What did she say?'

It was madness. But the reality is, this is probably most of my calls right now. I am focusing so hard on hearing that I am completely unable to retain it at the same time. And I am so nervous about saying the wrong thing, that more often than not, I say completely the wrong thing. 

It's cringeworthily, facepalmingly horrific. 

The kind of horrific that leaves me thinking, 'I just need to keep my mute button on and stay in the background'. But those of you who know me will know that mute buttons are really not my usual style.

And this makes me sad.

When I realised what was happening in my call with my colleague and explained it, she was brilliant. She suggested summarising what she was saying in the chat so that I could refer back to it. And it worked. I heard, I understood and then I read the summary back to try and force my brain to retain the information. But it meant that we spent the best part of six hours on a call yesterday, bashing a piece of writing into shape. And I needed to lie in a dark room afterwards.

And this also makes me sad. Because I want to be the very best at my job. And I feel mediocre right now.

One of the things that the COVID-19 pandemic has really highlighted for me, is how I am having to rethink all my deaf person life hacks. Before, with my work, I would make sure I had a balance of office and remote working so that I felt included and part of the team. Before the pandemic I had really strong career ambitions, and now I find myself wondering if I will ever realise those.

Before with bars, shops and restaurants, I had ways of getting by that have all vanished behind a sea of facemasks - but that's a whole other story.

I know that I will hack a successful way of working again, but for now, I am stuck in that weird halfway period of sadness and a little bit of tantrumming while I work out what the heck I am going to do.

And do you know what? It was feeling like this twelve years ago in 2008 that inspired me to start this blog in the first place. And I worked it out then and I will work it out now.

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