There are not many business webinars that begin with the speakers grinning along to Pharrell William's song 'Happy' yet the song was so apt for the optimistic, insightful and inspiring discussion that unraveled in Episode 7 of our Road to Recovery Series. Our host Becky Statham (Principle Consultant at Veran Performance) was joined by our brilliant speaker Gü Dopran, who is the Founder of Curated Abilities. Having lost her hearing at 3 years old, Gü's mission and business in life is to support deaf and disabled people to nurture their ideas and aspirations in order to access jobs. Gü facilitates this by working with individuals and businesses to establish working environments that are inclusive, flexible and accessible. As Becky pointed out, the whole purpose of our Road to Recovery series is to talk to individuals who thrived in - not just survived - the crisis. In this sense, we couldn't think of a better person to talk than Gü, whose down to earth, honest openness showed us the importance of being expressive, sensitive and resilient both within our private lives but also within our professional lives.
Becky opened the discussion by asking Gü to tell our listeners about her own experience of going into lockdown from the point of view of the deaf community and from a business perspective. Gü pointed out that many people within the deaf and disabled community simply couldn’t understand what was going on and that language was a huge barrier during the media storm that accompanied the crisis back in March 2020. For many people within the deaf community British Sign Language, rather than spoken English, is their first language, so the lack of sign language for announcements on the news meant deaf individuals felt left out and excluded. The main question being asked at the time was 'Where’s the interpreter?' and whilst this has been recognised now, it's rather too little, too late. Gü also spoke of her own experience of looking for a career change during the pandemic but highlighted that she felt intimated by the fact that most jobs online state that they want someone with excellent telephone skills which she did not have due to being deaf. Gü spoke of how this not only led to her sense of exclusion but also how it prompted a serious decline in self-confidence. It was after this experience that Gü came up with the idea of Curated Abilities on the premise that the business world needs to have more understanding in regard to the needs of the deaf and disabled community and on a wider scale, a better understanding of people's needs more generally. On a more optimistic note Gü highlighted that the pandemic and the emphasis on flexible working has helped to refocus discussions surrounding mental health, work/life balance and equality. In this sense the communication and openness around these topics has led to a greater acceptance and understanding of mental health and general wellbeing. Using this Gü then highlighted that no one really talks about disability and that it is still, sadly, a very touchy subject. The solution? In Gü's opinion:
Just talk about it more! Showing that you understand and want to listen is the first step towards any progress regarding disability confidence within the business world and within society at large.
Not only is it important for all members of society and for employers to show understanding towards the deaf and disabled community, it is equally important that members of the deaf and disabled community accept themselves as individuals. This was a point Gü placed particular emphasis on by stating that she at times has been embarrassed about discussing the fact she is deaf. However, in her eyes any transformation towards a more inclusive, accessible world must start with members of the deaf and disabled community feeling comfortable with talking about their disabilities and their needs. Of course this requires a receptive society but it also requires frankness and braveness on behalf of deaf and disabled individuals. For example, instead of using cover-up terms such as 'hard of hearing', Gü highlighted the need to destigmatize the word 'deaf' in an effort to facilitate an attitudinal shift towards deafness and disability itself. Citing the statistic that 11 million people in the UK are deaf, both Becky and Gü concluded that disability should not be treated as a feared unknown but an accepted fact: some people are disabled, and this should not mean they get treated with hostility. The main emphasis here was that businesses and society more broadly need to normalise disability through healthy open discussion and communication.
Becky then steered the conversation towards the role that interpreters play in facilitating accessibility within the business world. Drawing on personal experience Gü highlighted that there is not only a general shortage of interpreters within the UK itself but a much deeper problem regarding prejudiced or backward attitudes towards interpreters attending meetings. One particular instance Gü highlighted was the prejudice she faced when she requested an interpreter for a 40 person meeting which would have been incredibly hard for her to understand without an interpreter present. Not only was Gü refused the interpreter to begin with, she was then told that the meeting had been cancelled and then arrived at work the next day to find that the meeting had, in fact, gone ahead. Effectively, she had been lied to. Describing this instance she explained:
"I felt really excluded and as if I were not able to fit in. In fact I felt like I was not valid. It really destroyed my self-confidence"
However, Gü quickly steered the conversation in a positive direction by explaining that although there's not enough interpreters in the UK, the pandemic has made it easier to find interpreters because most meetings have shifted online. Beforehand, an interpreter would have to be booked a month in advance but during the pandemic a deaf individual could have an interpreter based in a completely different location helping to interpret a meeting that was taking place online. Becky then asked how Gü about her opinion and experience of online meetings from an accessibility point of view. Stating that it is often impossible to see everyone's face on large calls, Gü emphasised that HR needs to make people more aware that deaf individuals focus on lips, facial expression and body language. In this sense people need to habitualise maintaining eye contact online as well as thinking more carefully about their lighting, their facial expression and the way in which they carry themselves in online meetings. Alongside this suggestion Gü also highlighted that office spaces should also think carefully about seating arrangements and lighting because for deaf individuals people able to see everyone and read people's body language and faces is incredibly important for ensuring those individuals feel included.
Currently most deaf and disabled people feel that self employment is the only way they can work because they feel intimated by the current business climate in which employers remain fearful of hiring deaf and disable people because disability generally remains a huge unknown. Gü suggested that this could be combatted by spreading more awareness. When you google what jobs can deaf people do it ignorantly suggests titles such as 'Speech language and teacher of the deaf'. Very simply, our current outlook towards deafness is backwards and needs reforming. Gü then explained she really empathised with those deaf individuals who felt they had no other option than self-employment by describing her experience in her first job. Having worked at a TV and production company for 6 years, she was told new management that her job would be discontinued and that 'there's a deaf guy in the warehouse, you can work with him'. Frankly, an awful display of prejudice which sadly is still quite widespread. Appalled by this story Becky emphasised Gü's remarkable resilience to which Gü replied:
"Well the way I see it is if the other the person can do it you can what's stopping you? The only person stopping you is yourself. In your brain you have got to say, go and do it, push yourself"
A life lesson and a half..
Discussing the pandemic in a little more detail Gü went on to say that a lot of us learnt more empathy and more understanding during the crisis because everyone was suffering and there was a heightened awareness of what people were going through at home. Beforehand, an employee would come to the office dressed in a certain way and go home to life which could be very different to how they present their lives in a professional environment. The point here was about vulnerability and about a business' capacity to spot vulnerability and help those who may be suffering. The same goes for deaf and disabled individuals; we need a greater push for businesses to spot possible difficulties and then adjust around those difficulties so that deaf and disabled individuals can feel looked after and valued within a business. In agreement Becky highlighted that everyone needs a sense of belonging within a business and a feeling that they are accepted, needed and valued. At the end of the day, working in a business is about being human and Gü showed us in this session ways in which we as humans can better understand and empathise with one another to make businesses and society more inclusive, equal and kinder spaces.