What I Learned About Accommodating A Profoundly Deaf Participant In My Human Rights Session

By FredrickHobbs

For a guy who’s written not one, but two books about human rights, you’d think I’d follow the advice I give to others.

Recently one of the participants in my session was profoundly deaf. I should have known something was up when Jan deliberately staked out her seat at the front of the room. Most early risers make a bee-line for the back in case the class is a dud and they can read the paper or doodle on the sly.

Janice lost her hearing progressively, and at the age of 37 had surgery for a cochlear implant, which is in essence, a bionic ear. A speech processor communicates with a computer chip in her skull allowing her functional hearing. However, while most people have thousands of tiny hair cells in their ears providing richness of sound, Jan’s implant by-passes those defective cells with only 22 stimulating electrodes and therefore only 22 different pitches of sounds.

Hence, with the right clues – lip reading, body language, facial expressions – Jan can figure out a fair amount of what someone is saying to her. It’s crude, but it works. Crowds, lots of noise and even moustaches can throw off even the most astute speech reader with an implant. I am told all that concentration is exhausting.

Being the brilliant speaker that I am, I used a variety of methods in the training day. Learning games, group discussions, videos, audio interviews, and such. And being that I am so sensitive, and with four years previously on the Board of Directors of the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, I even suggested Jan get closer to the speakers so she would enjoy the learning while we watched a documentary. After all, my Dad – born hard of hearing – would always have the speaker right next to his ear when we went to the drive-in theatre as kids. In other words, I knew it all.

I was surprised when Jan politely declined to move closer. She told me at the next break that volume doesn’t help; clarity is the problem. Hence, not only did Jan miss out on the 25 minutes of the documentary in day 1, she missed out completely the next 20 minutes of the documentary on day 2, limiting her participation in the ensuing discussions.

I felt I had done everything I could to get that damn projector to display the closed captioning, but oh well, I tried my best.

Jan and I decided to email one another so she could share a document that helps people (like me and her co-workers) understand how best to communicate with her. In this six page document, I learned so much and was almost moved to tears.

A day later Jan came to her senses and sent me a lengthy email explaining how ironic it was that she was in a course to help managers avoid harassment and discrimination and here she was facing discrimination! She gave me one barrel and as far as I was concerned, I deserved two.

One very quick phone call let me know that the closed captioning would have worked had I just used the television with the cc decoder, instead of the projector. Sure the projector gives us a bigger visual, but that’s not important when one person misses everything and the learning which flows from it.

As well, it took me about 10 minutes to transcribe an audio recording I used in the session. I sent it to Jan right away.

If I wanted to, I could give myself a great big pat on the back for the things I did right. After all, as soon as Jan told me about her hearing first thing in the morning of day 1, I spent a lot of time looking her way, or being on her side of the room. As well, I made copies of some materials on day 2 so she could read along while others in the class just listened.

But if I give myself that big pat on my own back, then I think it allows me to say something like, “gee, we’re making progress” and think somehow I’m doing wonderful things.

The audio recording I noted above was an interview with Louise Arbour, my former criminal law professor, former Supreme Court of Canada judge and the soon to be former High Commissioner for Human Rights for the United Nations. I love playing this recording to participants in my sessions and speeches because she talks about Canada’s desire to be “charitable” when it comes to human rights and we have to move to a place of “entitlement.” Funny isn’t it.

Jan was entitled to all the learning that every participant received in that session. When I think about it now, it would have taken so little to make sure that was done. Let me tell you, it will be done differently for my next session and I’m grateful to Jan for teaching me a thing or two.

If you’re interested in getting a copy of Jan’s instructional document, please let me know. It was great for me and I know you’ll learn something valuable. As for me, I’ve learned that I’ve got to be better at walking the walk, in addition to talking the talk.

Stephen Hammond, B.A., LL.B., CSP is a professional speaker, trainer and author in the field of workplace harassment, discrimination and the changing face of Canada. Stephen worked in labour relations, employee relations and law before consulting and speaking full time. He is the author Managing Human Rights at Work: 101 practical tips to prevent human rights disasters and Steps in the Rights Direction: 365 human rights celebrations and tragedies that inspired Canada and the world.