Disability in the workplace

Gill Low

I don’t think of myself as disabled. Maybe because I wasn’t classed as such until I was 32. Leading up to this point I had lived through 10 years of varying degrees of hearing loss but by the age of 32 I was classed profoundly deaf – with no hope of ever regaining any natural hearing.

Nobody knows why I lost my hearing. I like to think it has nothing to do with my love of clubbing throughout my teenage years at the ‘unders’ in Glasgow. Who knows it might have been? During my 20s I had hundreds of tests carried out on me but nothing came back conclusive.

The reason doesn’t matter to me, knowing the cause isn’t going to bring it back. What mattered to me then – and still does to this day – is leading a ’normal’ life. I was determined not to be defined by my disability. I refused to learn to sign and instead just carried on. I taught myself how to lip read and starting campaigning for a cochlear implant.

My hearing loss started when I was in the last few months of an intense 12 month Masters in Marketing at Leeds University Business School. One day I couldn’t hear the lecturer as well as I could the day before. After an emergency appointment with a consultant and a MRI scan to rule out a brain tumour – years of fluctuating hearing followed.

My hearing loss changed considerably throughout my 20s, going through periods of nearly normal hearing for 3 months then dropping the next day to almost nothing – then coming back a few months later. I’ll never forget standing in a travel agents in Sydney handing over the second half of a world trip (to Fiji, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina) in exchange for a one way ticket home to Glasgow. My hearing had dropped so badly – my once in a lifetime trip was impossible to continue.

From the age of 22 to 33 I followed my career in marketing whilst struggling to hear anything. I won’t lie – I believe my career would have gone further in my 20s if I still had the hearing I grew up with – but I still managed to progress a little thanks to some great understanding employers.

Deafness is an invisible disability and deafness can irritate people, especially if you require something to be repeated constantly. On the odd occasion I could tell I was annoying colleagues but the vast majority were encouraging, supportive and understanding. If I needed special equipment for meetings then that was organised. If I couldn’t hear on the phone that was fine – I was given other tasks to do. If I was having a ‘bad hearing day’ then I wasn’t required in meetings.

My confidence at times was shattered. There were dark days when I just wanted to go home and hide. There were days I wondered how different my life might have been if I hadn’t lost my ability to hear. Thankfully they were few and far between. I am incredibly lucky to be graced with a very loving family and an amazing group of friends and who never allowed me to feel sorry for myself. I didn’t need to anyway, because thanks to them I was still, for the majority of the time, leading a very happy fulfilling life with an ok career.

Life changed again in May 2010 when I was put forward for a cochlear implant. My expectations were not high but I knew anything would be an improvement from what I currently had. The results were hard to take in. Within three months of turning the implant on it was allowing me to hear almost 80% in my right ear.

Whilst my hearing is nowhere near ‘normal’ and I still have limitations –   for the first time in ten years I could hear birds sing and planes fly overhead. I also rediscovered my love of music – pre implant I had no knowledge of music released between 2000 – 2010 (turns out I didn’t miss much).

My new implant gave me the confidence to apply for the job of Marketing Manager at MacRoberts in 2012. In the four and half years I have worked here I have become a mum, received my second cochlear implant and been promoted.

The level of patience, understanding and encouragement I received from MacRoberts (as well as my past employers) can never be underestimated. Whether it has been sourcing the right phone for me, making sure I can hear in meetings with the right equipment and having time off for appointments and surgery, they have been there – supporting and encouraging me.

Managing the PR for the firm, my typical day involves calling and meeting journalists, attending events, networking, reviewing sponsorship proposals, presenting strategies and plans and working closely with the marketing team and partners. It’s busy and it’s stressful at times but I am so grateful I can do it all without worrying what I can and can’t hear.

Unfortunately it would appear that I have been somewhat lucky in my experiences at work. A recent survey by the Scottish Council of Deafness reported that 74% of deaf people in Scotland said they were prevented from progressing at work because of their deafness. While research also shows that the biggest barrier at work for deaf people is lack of understanding by employers of their communication needs – with a shocking 60% looking for another job because of their treatment at work.

There are 57,000 people in Scotland with severe or profound hearing loss – so it is glaringly obvious that these statistics need to change. Awareness of deaf people’s needs – needs to be brought to the forefront of employers minds. It is why the work of Genanalytics and The Diversity Awards – which celebrates employers who embrace diversity – is so important.



Gill Low is the Senior Marketing Manager at MacRoberts. MacRoberts are delighted to be sponsoring the Diversity awards in Association with The Herald and GenAnaytics.