It had taken place between 20 of us, under the thrumming air-con and between two open windows. The sound of drilling next door sailed through the air, mingling with the murmuring of the morning radio.
We were going through the weekend’s papers, most of the staff carefully mumbling into their laps, interrupted every now and then by a latecomer, who’d swing cheerfully through the doors, eventually pulling themselves across the laminate floor in a swivel chair.
I couldn’t hear a thing.
Actually, more accurately, I could hear everything, but it was all a wall of conflicting sound through my hearing aids.
Background noise in meetings is all too common and it is a real problem for the deaf and hard of hearing. I reverted, at the age of 32, to a sulkier, 14 year-old version of me.
I was asked a question I couldn’t hear properly so I shrugged my answer. I simply couldn’t be bothered to ask anyone to repeat what they said anymore.
I recognised my behaviour wasn’t great, so spoke to management. Apologies were made, people scrambled for solutions. "What do you think would help?" I was asked, and I wanted to say: "Microphones? Trained actors able to project their voices?"
There are more realistic solutions.
This is not a tell-all shocking account of an agency’s thoughtless behaviour. It is every single place I’ve ever worked. But, with one in six people experiencing a hearing loss across the UK, I think it’s time to create a blueprint.
To start us off, here are three ways in which those of us in communications could make our meetings more inclusive for the deaf and hard of hearing.
1. Stop having fun
No, but seriously, banter is the worst during an all-staff meeting. Your deaf or hard of hearing person can’t hear it; they’re concentrating far too hard on switching attention across umpteen voices to listen to sideways cracks.
2. Training staff
Senior staff should be made aware, through training if possible, of the unique challenges deaf people face in communicating at work. Don’t assume that because your account executive with a hearing loss says they don’t mind taking notes during a client meeting they are fine. This requires tact and empathy and you need to consider while deaf people are every bit as capable as people who have full hearing, they may not always want to broadcast the challenges they are facing.
3. Consider the acoustics
Is there anything you can do to improve the acoustics in the meeting room? Closing windows and turning off a noisy air conditioning unit are pretty standard, but what about soft furnishing? Adding a rug and cushions are all cost-effective ways of improving sound.
A major bonus would be if these things were all done as standard, without needing to consult the deaf person.