In 2016 I got a new job. It was scary for me. It was scary because for the best part of 12 years I had worked very much alone. I was part of a national network of disability workers. The basic aim of these workers was to make employment and education more accessible for people with a disability. I covered vast regions. At one time, my region covered almost half of Victoria. Although I was part of a big network, I was the one worker in my region. I had complete control of the budget. Being deaf, I needed access like interpreters or captioning and I could just organise these as required. I had free reign. My manager trusted me and I just got on with it.
Naturally I had to have meetings and the like with the community and stakeholders such as with Government groups and steering groups. No drama because what I needed I got. Each morning when I came into work there was just me in the office. I had no team to worry about. I didn’t need to lip read anyone. The network communicated with me by email and no one phoned. Every couple of months I caught up with my manager and we would review where I was at. I loved it.
But after 12 years it was time to challenge myself. For many years I had been a strong supporter of the NDIS. I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth was and I applied for a position as a senior with Local Area Coordination Services at the Brotherhood of St Laurence. After a long drawn out recruitment process, I was successful. I very nearly did not take the offer. I loved what I was doing and I had freedom to be innovative and creative. I had complete control of the direction of the program in my region. Why would I want to give that up?
In the end, I decided it was time to challenge myself. I accepted the offer and headed off to this brave new world of LAC services. It was going to be different. For a start, instead of having my own office, I was going to be in an open plan office. I was going to lead a team of Local Area Coordinators. I was going to have to be up and ready for communication at any time of the day. Many years ago my hearing flatlined so when I lipread I do just that. I have no access to sound to help me fill in the gaps. I was under no illusion it was going to be tough.
The first two weeks were fully in training with interpreters present the whole time. Interpreters or captioning. Then the third week came where I had to go into the office and start the job proper. I can tell you I was shitting myself. I had no idea what to expect.
Of course there was no way I could have an interpreter with me all day. I was going to have to communicate. I met the team and as is always the case there were those easy to lipread and those who were not. I sat at my desk and started the mandatory online training. After ten minutes, there was an impromptu meeting called. This was common in these early days. You see at that time the NDIS were experiencing a severe computer glitch. We needed to be updated regularly. There were policy directions and advice coming. So at anytime the manager would gather us around to update us. SHIT!
At this first impromptu meeting I understood nothing. This was not going to work. Especially if I was to manage a team. I needed access to information. I went straight to the manager’s office and told her these impromptu meetings were not inclusive and asked if there was a better way to do it, like updating people by email. She said no; this was how it was going to be.
Bloody hell. A second impromptu meeting was called. At the end of this meeting I had a Skype chat with a colleague and asked her what the meeting had been all about. She was happy to fill me in. But for me this was just a stop gap. I needed a better way. I needed ready access. I knew I could not have an interpreter with me all the time. To be frank, I was scared shitless because after 12 years of being in complete control I now had none. I thought momentarily of calling my old boss and asking if I could come back. But no; I am no quitter.
Then something wonderful happened. A third impromptu meeting was called, Silently, my colleague Nip sat next to me and opened up Word. Completely unasked, she started to type out what everyone was saying. I can tell you I wanted to pick her up and hug her. Instead I just said thank you. It was very much appreciated.
But it didn’t end there; the team were switched on. Every time an impromptu meeting was called someone would volunteer to be be my captioner. All of this happened without me asking. I can tell you that I went home that day and sat silently in my room. I had a little cry. It’s hard to explain how stressful it was but it really was. I gave thanks to my workmates who were so willing. I guess working in a disability organisation one would think it would be second nature, but really it isn’t. I was very lucky indeed.
I know this because once when working at a Deaf Society, of all places, I asked the CEO for interpreting. She didn’t refuse but she said she was disappointed because in the interview I said I was a good lipreader and could cope in most situations. No, I am not kidding. Knowing this, I knew how rare the response of my work mates was.
On the second day I spoke to the team. I thanked them for their assistance. I gave them a bit of background of how a deaf person processes information. I spoke about how important overhearing was. Overhearing is where colleagues are talking about an issue and just because you are there, you hear what is being said and learn from it. Oftentimes you can get involved in the discussion and add your views or ask questions for clarification. The Deaf professional in a hearing environment has no access to this valuable information and much learning is lost. I asked for my team to help. I said that if someone was talking about something that would be important for me to know, could they please update me?
Something wonderful happened from that little chat. Not only would the team update me on important info but they would involve me in the social chatter. Some one would text chat me through Skype to let me know what people were chatting about. It might be about someone’s wedding. It might be about someone’s weekend. Whatever it was they would often Skype me so that I was included in the chatter. Maree asking if anyone ever showers with their dog and Nip Skyping it to me will always be my favourite.
Just imagine yourself focused on writing a report and someone Skypes you a message like that. I was really blessed.
And you know, even when we had one on ones, the team did all they could to communicate with me. Sometimes this could be hilarious. Like Leila signing “Humping” when she was actually trying to tell me and another Deaf colleague she was going to the gym. Or the legendary Maree trying to tell me there was a group and accidentally was signing vagina instead. Mind you I had my own embarrassing moments. Like when Janna was trying to talk to me with a mouth full of food and I uttered the immortal, “Swallow lady, swallow”. The look on her face was absolutely comical.
This was my workplace for the last two and a half years, It was a place I truly looked forward going to nearly every single day. Recently I accepted a position for six months to further my knowledge and it was with great regret I had to leave my work mates. Right until the end, they made sure I was part of the team and included. They put up with me and my bad jokes. They put up with me and my noise. There were so many times that I would not realise someone was on the phone and everyone would be waving to me to be quiet because I was too loud.
But I was lucky. A hearing workplace for a deaf person can be a soul destroying place. It can be incredibly lonely. So to the Brotherhood of St Laurence who made sure I wanted for nothing and my awesome Whittlesea teammates, I say thank you. Words are really not enough. See you in six months.