Each month, Hear 2 Work talks to someone about their hearing loss at work, and finds out how their experiences could help you.
For someone with a significant hearing loss, you would’ve thought that being a telephone call handler would be an impossible ask. However, a couple of years ago, Christine Peel decided to make a career change to do just that. After a challenging start, she has gone from strength to strength in a job that she loves.
- Can you tell us a bit about your hearing loss?
I was diagnosed with deafness in my right ear when I was around 5 but no reason was ever given for it. However, I had regular hearing tests until I was 16 and was then told to come back if I ever had any problems. From being at secondary school I always tried to make sure anyone I was with was positioned on my left which was my ‘good’ side.
When I was 41 I had a cold that left me with a ‘bunged up’ feeling and visited my GP thinking I may have need my ears syringing. My GP referred me to ENT and at my appointment I was advised that the hearing in my right ear was so bad that it was beyond the help of hearing aids. To my surprise I was also told that there was approximately 60% hearing loss in my left ear and that a hearing aid would be provided.
- What do you do at work exactly?
I’m a 111 call handler for the ambulance service and my job involves taking calls from the public and signposting them to the most appropriate level of care based on answers to questions I ask about their symptoms.
- What does your day consist of?
I spend my whole shift answering calls which can be up to 12 hours.
- Have you always done that kind of work?
I started my current job in April 2013. Prior to that I worked as a driving instructor for 12 years, but have held a range of jobs in the banking call centre, the public sector as a school secretary and as a franchisee for an oven cleaning company.
- How does your hearing loss affect you at work?
I have an in-the-ear (ITE) hearing aid so doing the actual job isn’t a problem using a standard headset. I also have annual hearing tests arranged by our occupational health department to ensure my hearing is maintained within normal range with my hearing aid in.
If any of my colleagues talk to me while I have the headset on or when they’re sitting on my ‘wrong’ side I may not hear what they are saying. We hotdesk and when I sit next to someone for the first time I usually let them know about my hearing loss and tell them to touch my arm or bang on the desk to attract my attention if they want to talk to me. Everyone has been very understanding to this point.
- Did you find it hard starting out?
When I started the job I completed the disability section on the application form, fully disclosing my hearing problems. There was a 1 month full time training course followed by several shifts taking live calls with a coach listening in. I was using an NHS behind the ear (BTE) hearing aid at the time and it became apparent during my first shift that it was not compatible with the headsets, all I could hear was the noise behind me and not what was coming through the headset.
I was devastated. It felt as if I’d finally found a job I knew I was going to love and I had no idea whether I’d be able to do it and I drove home crying.
- How did you manage to resolve it?
I was employed through an agency at the time and spoke to their Occupational Health department. They ordered the headset with the biggest earpiece available that was compatible with the telephone system, however I was sceptical it was going to work. They also could give me no idea as to how long delivery would take. Deciding to take matters into my own hands, I booked an appointment at Specsavers for a hearing test and bought an ITE hearing aid that would be compatible with any headset. I was ready to go back to work within 3 weeks.
The employment agency refused to sign me off until the new headset (which I then didn’t need) had arrived and I didn’t go back until 12 weeks later. Luckily, the ITE hearing aid worked fine and I was able to complete the coaching and start the job properly.
At no point was I referred to Access to Work for any kind of assessment. In fact, I was unaware of their existence until a few weeks ago when I met a colleague who has hearing loss and had been referred to them before she could complete her training. She is being provided with specialist equipment needed to enable her to do the job using her NHS BTE hearing aid at no cost to herself.
- If there was one piece of advice you could give to someone starting out in their career, what would it be?
I would advise anyone with any kind of hearing loss who is starting a new job to ask for a referral to Access to Work instead of trying to deal with any problems on their own. This would have made a huge difference to me, both personally and financially (my ITE hearing aid cost over £900) and they should be the first port of call before any problems arise.
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