To coincide with Black Country Housing Group’s (BCHG’s) EDI strategy I thought I would write an article on disability. My wife, Zana was born Deaf; her one ear is, as she puts it ‘dead’ whilst her good ear is only able to hear 30% by use of a hearing aid. It’s something that she’s accepted and got used to – probably no different to many others who are living with a disability.
Currently nearly one in five of us has some form of disability (stop and take a moment to look around when you are in a work or a social environment of more than five people). Zana is not alone with her personal disability as approximately one in six of the UK suffers from hearing loss and one in ten also suffering from Tinnitus - Zana (and myself to a lesser degree) also suffer from this.
Like most people with a disability, life has often felt like a constant struggle (or battle) when fighting to have her needs considered or requesting an equal right to access. Things have certainly improved over time. Despite her mum being convinced of her deafness from birth, even the official recognition of it took until she was five years old. The progress nowadays with clinical and scientific diagnosis is thankfully a world apart.
School has certainly changed. Zana’s mum fought tooth and nail with the education authorities to prevent them from sending her off to a Birmingham school for ‘backwards children’. Can you imagine that term being used only 40 years ago? Zana was the first deaf person at each of the schools she attended. It’s encouraging to see that this has changed. When Zana enrolled in an evening degree course three years ago, that with some guidance from her, they assisted with interpreters, note-takers and provided additional time to process written concepts into a more visual format (which as a Deaf person she naturally leads to).
British Sign Language (BSL) was only officially recognised as a language 18 years ago, but at least deaf awareness and BSL now form part of the national curriculum. It’s encouraging that more and more people understand a few basic every day signs compared to before. The impact of somebody you don’t know using BSL to say ‘thank you’ or ‘how are you’ cannot be underestimated, even now.
Developments in modern technology over the last few decades have also transformed the ability to have remote conversations that were previously impossible. Mobile phones (whilst not being able to be used for verbal conversations), can now be used for texts and ‘facetime’. This has enabled us to have conversations whenever we want, rather than having to wait until we get home.
This is no different to the hearing aids that she has worn over the many years – from clunky large boxy ones in the photo below through to the much more powerful and small digital ones she currently uses. Provided free through the NHS (another reason to be thankful for what they do for us), it uses an exact moulding of her ear to ensure a correct and comfortable fit. They now come in a variety of colours, ranging from trendy primal colours to a translucent colour that makes them very discrete.
The work environment has also been one constant challenge. Therefore, it’s so encouraging to see BCHG recognise its importance as part of the EDI strategy. Zana went to numerous interviews and was constantly met with the response of ‘’well how will you communicate with customers?’’ Unfortunately, this was asked to justifiably refuse her the job, rather then give her the opportunity to prove she could do it.
Whilst it’s understandable for employers to not understand specific needs of disabled candidates, what has changed are support mechanisms like ‘Access to Work’, which provides funding for work adaptions (interpreters for example) to enable accessibility.
As recently as a few years ago, not long after she had started a new job, Zana was told to attend (unannounced) a meeting with dozens of individuals who she had never met. It was expected that she’d be able to follow what was said, because of ‘how well she lip reads. To put this into perspective, this would be like expecting you to go to a meeting full of individuals speaking in a foreign language in the expectation that you fully understood everything that’s being discussed.
Simple pleasures such as watching the TV or going to the movies were vastly different experiences for the two of us. Zana’s mum constantly found her in the living room with her head virtually pressed against the TV to hear the dialogue to understand it. In those days there was no such thing as subtitles on TV and so most of Zana’s viewing habits relied upon visual programming. There was only one children’s programme (the ground-breaking ‘Vision On’), which contained presenters using BSL. It was left to her parents to purchase an expensive TV set that contained Ceefax and teletext subtitles for her to understand programmes - a facility that we take as an instant in-built feature on our modern sets.
No new release films were subtitled, and this only changed within the last couple of decades. Even then they were only available for a single showing (usually tucked away early on a Sunday morning) and if you missed that you had to wait to purchase the video (or latterly DVD) – providing it contained the option of subtitles.
Not all cinema experiences have been positive. 15 years ago, when taking Zana and the boys to watch one of the Harry Potter films, one of the attendants walked in and announced to the audience that subtitles were unavailable, adding “but I guess you’ll all be quite pleased this won’t distract you from the film.” I will leave to your imagination the conversation I had with the manager over that, but just stop and think about what that comment highlights about the continuing attitudes and knowledge of disability.
Going for days out to museums have also improved. Whilst invariably I still have to switch to my default ‘signing mode’ to ensure that Zana gets the benefit of the information that the guides are providing, at least onlookers don’t stop and stare. We’ve also been fortunate to have been provided either BSL interpreted guides, transcripts or signed clips on an iPad.
The contents of this article might come across as depressing or angry, but it’s not. All the above emotions are borne out of frustration in our challenge to be treated fairly and equally. By the same token, sadly Zana’s experiences and stories are likely to be no different to the one in five of us that might also face their own similar struggles. The noticeable difference that the last few decades have shown us is that these challenges are becoming more visible and accepted as being backwards and out-of-date.
Stuart Collins, Financial Accountant at Black Country Housing Group