In light of Deaf Awareness Week 2021 - Molly O'Brien talks to Hearing Aid UK about how driven she and her colleagues are to supporting and inspiring women who may be feeling or have been discriminated against due to their hearing loss. Providing a constant flow of support to deaf and hard of hearing women and bringing them together to form a confident and thriving hub of a community.
As a deafblind woman myself, I am well aware of the issues and challenges that deaf, blind and deafblind women face in society. I chose to study Sociology at University because I enjoy the subject and also because I saw Sociology as a way to make a positive difference in disabled people’s lives.
Whilst at University I was involved in the Students’ Union; representing disabled women in the Women’s Network (a support network for women students); in my final year at University, I was elected as the Disabled Students’ Officer, representing and supporting disabled students. Through my Master's Degree in ‘Research Methods Sociology’, I realised how social research can be used to make a difference for disabled people and how research within the charity sector is a powerful tool for change.
I joined Deaf-initely Women in early 2019 as a volunteer, interested in the organisation and aims to further develop my work skills. Having finished University nearly 3 years prior to volunteering with Deaf-initely Women, I had not been able to gain paid employment. Despite various job interviews, many employers saw my ‘disability’, rather than focusing on what I could actually do. I also found many employers focused on my perceived inexperience in workplaces. They were not aware that as a disabled person it is incredibly difficult for me to gain meaningful work experience and volunteer opportunities due to many access barriers. Deaf-initely Women provided me with accessible, supported and meaningful volunteer opportunities to develop my skills, confidence and meet other deaf women.
I now continue my work as a paid employee at Deaf-initely Women in the role of Researcher and Evaluator. My role is extremely varied, however, the main aspect of my work focuses on undertaking qualitative and quantitative research to support and submit various funding applications and write key evaluation reports for current projects within the organisation. I am involved with many other aspects of the charity's work. I recently organised and led a successful yoga workshop, which was fully accessible and inclusive for deaf women.
Working for Deaf-initely Women has given me my first employment, enabling me to develop my work skills and personal confidence. The role has enabled me to positively contribute to providing full, inclusive access for deaf women.
To me, it is really important that Deaf-initely Women is run by and for deaf women. I personally have never encountered any other organisation like this. Deaf-initely Women’s unique position is pivotal to the charity’s work. The main focus of our work remains the same; to provide peer-led services responsive to the needs and requirements of deaf and hard of hearing women. We provide support to build deaf women’s emotional and financial resilience to become more independent at work, at home and in society. We aim to; improve deaf women’s health and wellbeing, challenge discrimination, build confidence, support deaf women to gain skills and work experience.
Deaf-initely Women encourages women with hearing loss, including deaf women whose first language is sign language, deafblind and hard of hearing women learn new skills, make new friends and support each other. The charity includes deaf women of all ages from aged 18+ and with varying degrees of deafness and communication needs. Deaf-initely Women serves all deaf women in Derby, Derbyshire and surrounding areas.
We provide a range of inclusive accessible events, workshops and courses, aiming to improve deaf women’s well-being, health, skills, knowledge and confidence. All our events are provided with full communication support including, sign language interpreters, speech-to-text and hearing loops. Our events, workshops and courses are delivered by deaf and hard of hearing women themselves. Examples of events include basic communication and BSL courses, healthy eating, safety, mindfulness, macramé and crafts.
Deaf-initely Women also provides supported volunteer and work experience opportunities for deaf women. Volunteer opportunities range from assisting in the office, social media and marketing to assisting with events. Freelance work opportunities include organising events/workshops and delivering events as a tutor.
I consider myself to be near the beginning of my career, but already I know my proudest moments are when my work has an actual positive impact. Being able to reassure new disabled students, through talking about the challenges and opportunities of being at University. Being able to provide supported inclusive events for deaf women to be empowered, learn and socialise.
I am proud when I am able to successfully portray disabled people’s stories and experiences through my research work – whether these are stories of communication barriers, experiences of diagnosis, experiences of employment and gaps in service provisions for them personally. Writing these stories and experiences have a powerful impact in bringing my work to life.
Being at the beginning of my career, my main challenge has been actually obtaining employment. Upon finishing my Master's Degree I was successful in gaining a place on a graduate scheme, being told I was a high standard candidate. However, the organisation (who delivered the scheme) were unable to identify a suitable work placement for me in the Midlands area (where I live) and a placement that could provide the support I require as a deafblind woman.
As a disabled person gaining employment and work experience, is not as accessible compared with non-disabled peers. It was frustrating to be told I am intelligent and capable enough, but then not being able to actually work. This was increasingly so, with subsequent job searching, applications and interviews, before I gained employment with Deaf-initely Women.
In the current uncertain and isolating times, it is even more important to keep in contact with family, friends and those important to you. Use the technology that you have and use whatever communication means is best for you – phone, text, social media, messenger, WhatsApp, Skype. Find the best way to keep in contact with others for you. As a deafblind person myself I continue to adapt to various communication means. Some are more accessible for me than others, so I use what is easiest for me. Focus on the technology, online resources and communication that works for you.
Do not be afraid to ask for help and assistance if you need it, either from family, friends or professionals. Do not struggle unnecessarily in these times. Focus on your interests, what makes you happy and what you can achieve at home. If you can, set yourself challenges at home.
For example, I enjoy yoga and fitness, so to access online classes via the Zoom app, I connect my laptop to my TV so I can see the screen better. I then connect my hearing FM system to my laptop and the sound is streamed directly to my hearing aids. I can access most of the class that way and feel happy continuing to practice yoga at home this way.
Ask questions and do not assume anything about people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Be prepared to listen and learn. It might seem obvious but have good clear communication skills. This is so important for working and supporting deaf and hard of hearing communities. Be adaptable with communication. Remember deaf and hearing-impaired people are the experts in their own deafness, as they live it every day. Everybody is an individual, with individual needs.
When I was at University, I wanted to access sport, fitness and physical activities but I initially found this difficult, as I did not have the support or the confidence to do so. I found this challenging as it involved meeting new people, new environments and explaining my needs. Not everyone was supportive and understanding, which negatively impacted my self-confidence and wellbeing. When I gained the right support, I was able to access sport and fitness that interested me, thereby increasing my confidence and improving my mental and physical wellbeing.
I have also been in many situations that have been discriminatory. It is difficult to challenge discrimination. However, with the support of family and friends I have successfully done this. It was hard but feels so much better to actually challenge discrimination. Through working at Deaf-initely Women, I aim to use my own lived experiences of deafblindness to help facilitate positive changes for others – positive impact and changes for deaf women’s lives.
As a charity, we are continually developing our projects and discussing new ideas for our work. During this current difficult and uncertain situation, we are working on adapting our services, so we continue to support deaf women, through providing more online events and workshops with full communication access for deaf women with all levels of hearing loss. This has exciting potential for Deaf-initely Women’s future work, as we can use this current experience to develop and progress our future face-to-face and online services and events for deaf women.
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