Music has been a big part of Jane’s life. She learned to play the viola at secondary school and still plays. She had a talent which she went on to develop at music college. She was a professional musician about the time her hearing started to deteriorate. At the time she did not want to accept the possibility she was losing some of her hearing and continued on with her life.
The real realisation that her hearing was deteriorating came when she was teaching English as a foreign language. It was when a colleague told her she was ‘a little bit deaf’ that she started to take notice.
She was living in Southern Poland where she had set up an English school, which she ran with her then partner. ‘There’s nothing as tough as running your own business’ Jane tells me. On top of the usual challenges, she was in a foreign country with a different culture and losing her hearing!
‘People in Poland tended to conceal their disabilities’ Jane tells me, which created pressure within her relationship. Looking back Jane says it was not a situation she would recommend but she recognises it has helped shape her. ‘It forces you to become self aware – which is no bad thing’ she says, putting her usual positive gloss on all her experiences.
She says her deafness became a ‘quality filter’ following her time in Poland. ‘If someone is not prepared to meet me half way in relation to my deafness, then they are not worth the benefit of my friendship’ she says with conviction.
She returned to the UK with no hearing, no job, no money and no relationship. She moved back in with her Mum for a period of time to find her feet.
When she lost her Mum she was able to look back and be grateful that this difficult time had given her memories with her Mum. She likens the loss of her hearing with the loss of her mother. ‘Loss helps you see the range of life and what it has to offer’ Jane says, ‘it teaches you to live for the moment’.
When she learned that the worse case scenario was complete loss of hearing she never considered not working. For her it was about financial independence and self worth, so she sought help and began adjusting. Jane put it simply by saying, ‘it is up to you how you choose to react to situations’.
Jane moved into publishing which she enjoyed but she found it did not give her the interaction with people that she loves. She was discriminated against in her second publishing job so was keeping an eye out for a new challenge.
She saw an advert for a vacancy at the Foreign Office and was encouraged by the accompanying statement saying, ‘British Diplomat Service needs to represent modern Britain’. ‘I liked that diversity was important to them and they were positive about disability’ Jane says. She applied and got the position of Head of EU Bilateral Department.
As First Secretary to Poland she led a team of eleven. She covered foreign military internal issues, press and public affairs and justice and home affairs.
Jane was the only deaf person at her level. She communicates using a lip speaker. A lip speaker is someone who repeats what a person is saying to Jane, silently and simultaneously in a way that is made easier to lip read. Jane says with the right people the process is seamless.
Jane worked at the Foreign Office for almost ten years. She says her deafness was an advantage at times. As a diplomat the heightened ability to read body language is extremely useful and she says she can read the atmosphere in a room on entering.
When speaking of how others viewed her as a deaf colleague she says, ’they reacted with so much surprise that they ended up just getting on with it. They were diplomatic by definition of the roles they held !’
Jane was clearly held in high esteem by senior ambassadors and high commissioners as they encouraged her to go for promotion. She put herself forward and was offered the post, but it was retracted due to the estimated cost of lip speakers for Jane to carry out the role.
About four or five weeks later she received an email to say it was not possible to go ahead with the offer.
Jane did not expect this as the fact she required lip speakers was not a new development and it had not been raised as a problem previously.
The Foreign Office predicted the cost of lip speakers would be up to £300,000 a year but Jane predicts it would be around £100,000 less than this. She points out she understands that this is a considerable cost, but goes on to say that ‘deploying people in overseas posts is an expensive business’.
Boarding school fees for the children of Foreign Office overseas employees can seriously mount up for a large family but this was not used as a comparator. Jane was not given the opportunity to challenge the decision so she took her case to an employment tribunal.
Jane was supported by the Commission for Equality and Human Rights but the court ruled in favour of the Foreign Office.
Jane told me her reasons for taking the case forward was that she felt it was important for clarification. She says she was led by her conscience. ‘Deaf people are four times more likely to be out of work than hearing people. I felt a responsibility to raise the broader issue of disability and employment’.
Jane feels fairness and equality are important British values and we should see past ‘pounds and pennies’. She cites the cost to society in benefits and health costs relating to isolation and depression as being a higher cost for society to bear.
Jane says that the experience of leaving the Foreign Office and the subsequent tribunal had a negative impact on her mental health and well being and it took some time to get over it. I say to her it seems somewhat ironic that the reason she was attracted to the Foreign Office was due to the diversity statement and the reason she left was due to her disability. She laughs at this and simply says, ‘we live in a different world than we did then’.
When I ask her what she wants to do with her life the laugh returns and she says, ’I just want to change the world!’ She talks of a society where taking account of difference is the norm.
She is now back in her home town of Manchester. She is working at Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) and is enjoying working in a deaf-friendly organisation. She is quick to tell me however, that she is ever aware of the outside world.
She would like to spend some time with employers and HR teams to reduce the fear that often exists around employing disabled people.
The over-riding thing from our conversation is that Jane reflects on all her experiences, takes the positive, then moves on. When she tells me she is an optimist she is not kidding! As a final question I asked her what advice she would give herself if she was just starting out. Jane’s reply was, ‘Follow your instinct and have no regrets. Don’t listen to what people tell you that you should do. You have one life so make the most of it’. Who would argue with advice like that!?
Jane picks up the positive in everything she describes has happened to her.