June 13, 2024
10 minutes
Written by
Guest User
Community News
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June 13, 2024
10 minutes
Written by
Guest User
Community News
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Workplace Accessibility: Q&A with Author and Hearing Loss Advocate Pat Dobbs

Pat wears a purple jacket with coral zip detail and hoop earrings while sitting next to lupines

Pat Dobbs is a passionate hearing loss advocate, author, speaker, and is featured on the cover of Hearing Health magazine’s ‘Superpower’ issue. After noticing she was having difficulties understanding others in her twenties, Pat realized her hearing loss and received her first pair of hearing aids. As her hearing continued to decline, Pat eventually received her cochlear implants and continues to be highly involved with the deaf and hard of hearing community. An active member of Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), Pat launched the HLAA-Morris Chapter in New Jersey and serves as chapter president. Dedicated to providing resources and an accessibility advocate, Pat also has a blog sharing resources and is the author of "The Hearing Loss Revolution and its Nine Guiding Principles." We are grateful for Pat’s time and insights as she shares her tips and experiences on accessibility in the workplace. 

Q: Can you share your journey with hearing loss and what challenges have you faced in the workforce as a result?

A: When I was about 20 I couldn’t figure out why people were mumbling and talking softly. Of course, that was the beginning of my hearing loss journey. 

Through the years, my hearing declined and when I was 60 I qualified as a candidate for cochlear implants and received the first of my two implants.

I wish I could say that through those years I let people know that I had a hearing loss and how to talk to me so I could hear them best. But, no. Instead, I became a first class “bluffer” - meaning that instead of asking people to repeat what they were saying, I would mimic their facial expression - sad if they were sad or happy if they were happy - and hoped that what I said made sense. No need to go into the embarrassing situations I found myself in as a result of this.

Luckily, I had a job that, for the most part, made it easy enough for me to hear while at work. I was in sales and a big part of my job was talking to my prospects and customers in their quiet offices. So easy to hear. But not so when I worked in my office. I worked in a noisy bullpen environment where there was constant noise. I could have asked to work in the empty office where it was quiet, but I didn’t. I could have researched assistive listening devices to help me hear on the phone. But again, I didn’t. What about company meetings?  Well, forget it. I missed more than I heard. But again, I was scared to advocate for myself - scared that I would be negatively judged. I felt like I was the only person in the world that had hearing loss and I was too invested in its stigma to come out of the closet and advocate for myself.

Q: Why are you interested in bringing hearing loss awareness into the workforce?

A: Of course, my experience in the workplace has a lot to do with it, but the seed was planted several years ago when I went to a Society of Human Resources Meeting (SHRM) meeting). I asked an HR official from a major corporation what accommodations they provided for their employees with hearing loss. His answer was a flat, “we don’t have any employees with hearing loss.” Hmmm. 

The theme of ignoring hearing loss continued when I went to the Workforce convention last year. I didn’t think to ask for captions because I assumed they’d have it for their large presentations. Nope - no captions. When I asked them about it, the response was “wow - what an interesting idea.” 

Last month I went to an HR convention in Maine and this time I got smart -I asked for captions up front. They didn’t provide captioning, but they did apologize and even refunded me my fee…. Yay Maine. 

Q: What changes would you like to see in HR policies and workplace practices to better support employees with disabilities in the future?

A: Going back to the HR professional who said they had no people with hearing loss…. Obviously, they do have employees with hearing loss as 12% of the workforce has some degree of hearing loss. 

Why then does this population not self-identify? 

Based on my work experience and what I’ve heard time and time again from others, is that they don’t feel safe self identifying. They are afraid that they will be seen as lesser, or that they wouldn’t get that promotion that they’ve worked for. 
I’d love to see companies talk about disabilities; bring them out into the open through presentations and workshops. Make people feel comfortable to self-identify and ask for accommodations. 

I love giving presentations and workshops. I explain the challenges of living with hearing loss, how to recognize someone with hearing loss, and explain once and for all that if they mishear and answer out of context, it has nothing to do with their intelligence, they just didn’t hear.

What I love most is after these presentations, people feel safer to self-identify and ask for accommodations. These accommodations may be as simple as reserving a seat in the front row, but that can make a world of difference between understanding what was said and not.

With accommodations, the hearing loss population is more productive. Now they’re able to fully participate in meetings as they know what the meeting is about. Bottom line, providing accommodations makes for a more productive workforce. 

cover of Hearing Health magazine's "Superpower" issue feauturing Pat who is wea ing a purple top with purple flower in the foreground
Pat featured on the cover of Hearing Health magazine

Q: What accommodations would you like to see?

Captions, captions and, guess what, more captions! 
And providing captions is now easier than ever as artificial Intelligence (AI) captions have greatly improved. Of course, a CART provider (Communication Access Realtime Translation) remains the best option and, when available, that’s the way to go.  

There’s many apps that provide captions. InnoCaption is a free app for smartphones. It gives the best of two worlds - you can choose between AI captions or a CART provider. In addition to InnoCaption, there’s several apps for live conversations; Otter.ai is just one example.

There are also devices that can be installed to provide better accessibility. Hearing loops are certainly the best technology available today. It brings sound directly to your assistive device, providing amazing clarity. The future holds improved technology through an updated version of Bluetooth Auracast.  

I always like to mention the pocket talker. It’s been around forever but it’s simple, inexpensive, doesn’t need to be installed, and works well for one on one conversations. 
There are also common sense accommodations that benefit everyone: sitting at a round table versus a long rectangular table, using a talking stick where people talk one at a time, and a quiet room for meetings.

Workshops to learn communication strategies have benefits for, both for the employees with hearing loss, as well as for the employees that they communicate with. They both have their challenges; the employees with hearing loss to understand what’s being said, and their hearing coworkers to remember communication tips and best practices (speak clearly, always get the attention of the person you’re speaking to and look directly at them when you speak).

One last but important item - never assume you know what’s the best accommodation for an individual. Always ask for their accessibility needs and preferences, as everyone has different needs in different situations

How do you navigate communication barriers at work, especially in meetings or group settings?

I wish I had an easy answer, but in my experience and the experience of others, the best advice is to do the work and advocate for yourself. That means asking for the accommodations you need. If it’s something out of the ordinary, make sure you give plenty of time to accommodate your needs.

If they ignore your request, ask again and again until they respond. After all, the law is on your side and at a certain point, that’s not such a bad thing to mention.

Once they provide your accommodations, always thank them. 

But there’s another side to accessibility that is overlooked. Accommodations often benefit others. Take captions for example. It benefits those where English is a second language or if you zone out for a few seconds, it can catch you up to the present. Today many watch videos just with captions - no sound. 

And I can’t forget sidewalk cuttings. Disabled Veterans advocated for them but now a myriad of people benefit from them (e.g.; those with baby strollers, shopping carts, bicycles and more).

Can you share a success story about an organization that helps people with hearing loss?

Once I give presentations and workshops, there’s a definite shift where people feel safer to self-identify and ask for accommodations. Hence their communications improves, and employees feel valued. 

But hey, let’s dream of a perfect world…..

People with disabilities will not be a separate group that needs accommodations because accommodations will be standard. There will be ramps that are easy to navigate, elevators that always work, captions will be standard in all environments, assistive listening devices will be installed, and hearing aids will be covered by insurance and always accessible.

Remember Geordi LaForge in StarTrek. He’s blind, but with technology he can see and certainly isn’t considered different. That’s how I see people with disabilities in our perfect world — people just like everyone else.

Pat Dobbs



Facebook: Being Heard

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/pat-dobbs-6a94981/

Instagram: @BeingHeardNow


Make calls with confidence

InnoCaption provides real-time captioning technology making phone calls easy and accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing community. Offered at no cost to individuals with hearing loss because we are certified by the FCC. InnoCaption is the only mobile app that offers real-time captioning of phone calls through live stenographers and automated speech recognition software. The choice is yours.

Llame con confianza

InnoCaption proporciona tecnología de subtitulado en tiempo real que hace que las llamadas telefónicas sean fáciles y accesibles para la comunidad de personas sordas y con problemas de audición. Se ofrece sin coste alguno para las personas con pérdida auditiva porque estamos certificados por la FCC. InnoCaption es la única aplicación móvil que ofrece subtitulación en tiempo real de llamadas telefónicas mediante taquígrafos en directo y software de reconocimiento automático del habla. Usted elige.