Immy Nunn, a deaf advocate, gathered thousands of followers on Instagram and TikTok, sharing thoughts and feelings about her life. This included an honest insight into her mental health. On 4th January 2023, she died at the very young age of 25 years old. With both her openness and honesty in life, and the tragedy of her death, Immy has brought to the fore the need to do so much more for the deaf community and their mental health.
The fact is, people in the deaf community are twice as likely to have mental health issues than hearing people. Deafness can be a lonely and isolating disability due to the simple fact that we cannot hear fully.
We lack access to elements of society that others take for granted. Communication often excludes us. Primary healthcare is harder for us to access. We face discrimination in our personal and working lives. It makes us feel isolated, frustrated, stressed and angry. It damages our sense of self-worth. And so it follows that we are predisposed to experiencing poor mental health during our life time.
It is a real issue and we should all play a part in proactively removing these unfair barriers to reduce the risk of many more cases like Immy.
With that in mind, I thought I would tell my own story about living with profound deafness and the mental health issues this has triggered.
Isolation in my early years
I was born profoundly deaf at a time when there was not much in the way of disability or deaf awareness and having a disability was actually a social stigma.
British Sign Language was not an officially recognised language. In fact, we were not encouraged to sign at all. Instead, we were expected to learn to speak.
I went to a mainstream primary school with a partially hearing unit and then a public girls school. During that time I undertook years of intensive speech therapy, learning to speak, which was both tiring and difficult.
The inevitable delayed speech development and the inability to sign left me unable to communicate. The frustration led to tantrums on the floor and from an early age I learned to close myself off, leading to further isolation.
As a deaf child living in the hearing world, with very little in the way of deaf friends, deaf culture or deaf identity, I had no real sense of belonging.
I didn’t belong in the hearing world I was brought up in and, as a non-signer, was not part of, nor welcome in, the deaf world at that time. I was in a constant state of limbo.
Closing myself off, I now understand, was a coping technique. Alongside this, I began masking.
Masking is a technique of camouflaging your natural personality to conform to social pressures. It is a behaviour adopted either subconsciously as a coping mechanism, or consciously in order to “fit in” with society “norms.” Either way, you live your life prtending to be somebody else for fear of not being accepted for who you truly are.
Societal and workplace barriers
Over the years, the isolation and loneliness of not belonging, the effort of masking, and the challenge of facing numerous barriers in daily life took its toll on my mental health. Anxiety, depression and fatigue have all been prevalent throughout my life.
Let me be clear – it is not the disability that makes my life hard for me and negatively impacts my mental health. It is the barriers in society and the workplace that I, along with others, face on a daily basis.
There are too many to list them all, but the ones I most often experienced throughout my life are:
- Attitudes and misperceptions. Every day people can make choices based on misperceptions and stereotypes about people with disabilities. If people do not take the time to educate and learn, wrong choices can be made, based on unconscious bias. This can lead to discrimination at work and social exclusion.
- Lack of communication. People may be afraid to communicate with people who have disabilities due to not knowing the right way to communicate, or fear of getting it wrong. This can lead to exclusion, loneliness and social isolation. At worst it can put lives at risk.
- Non inclusive and ableist language. Ableist language is language that devalues a person with a disability. For example, labelling us as “difficult” because we don’t conform to your idea of “normal” behaviour, based on your stereotypes. Negative and harmful, it can make us feel ashamed and worthless. But very often the root cause of that perceived “difficult” behaviour is that our needs are not being met. Not demanding Not unreasonable needs. Just the bare essentials that we need to live and do our job. So it is not the person that’s being difficult, but the environment we are in.
- Inaccessibility in the workplace and public spaces. Too many buildings and spaces continue to be inaccessible for people with disabilities. Failure to design a space with disability in mind can unfairly (and unlawfully) exclude people from opportunities and services that non-disabled people enjoy, and crucially, can create a safety hazard or danger. Losing one of your senses like hearing can make you feel vulnerable too.
- Inflexibility of working style. Having a disability can mean it is difficult to do things spontaneously sometimes, as there may not have been time to think about the adjustments you need to take part. It also can mean it is difficult to work in more than one working style because you need to accommodate your disability. I worked in a way that was suited to my deafness and which allowed me to do my job well. This can create conflict in the workplace when a manager does not recognise this or accept restrictions in a working style.
- COVID brought additional challenges for me. The wearing of masks meant that I wasn’t able to lip-read and follow conversation. Working from home meant endless and tiring video calls without the benefit of body language and being able to read the room. That meant I had to rely more on lipreading which can be very tiring.
- Discrimination at work. It’s horrible to think disability discrimination in the workplace still happens, but it does. It is a terrible thing to happen and can be difficult to prove, the process of which often exacerbates the mental health issues already being experienced. Opportunities to develop and progress can be missed, or not even offered, due to discrimination.
Any one of these has knock on effects on mental health, in particular our resilience. But the reality is we often face most, if not all, of these in our day to day lives. It can wear us down and burn us out.
Over the years I became too good at coping techniques like masking and eventually my mental health hit a brick wall. So I decided to speak out and ask for help. Here’s how I did this:
- Pick good allies. Allies are people who have your back and make sure you are both supported and included. Pick your allies carefully, look for those qualities that will help make you feel safe i.e empathy and understanding. I confided in line managers and a boss who I knew to be inclusive and empathetic.
- Use those allies effectively – tell them what you need. Choosing good allies provided a safety net at work that allowed me to fully disclose the extent of my deafness and the problems I was having at work, without fear of judgement or feeling ashamed. This enabled me to clearly articulate my needs, rather than just coping, for example, workplace adjustments.
- Set up an employee network – I helped to set up an employee resource group, Ability EY, a network focused on supporting people with disabilities and influencing change within the company. I reached out to other people with hearing loss at work and in other companies to share and validate my own personal story.
- Worked in diverse, supportive and inclusive teams – where I felt I could be my authentic self and belong.
- Meet other deaf people – I learnt British Sign Language and joined a deaf club. It helped me feel more secure in the deaf world and that having one foot in the hearing world and one foot in the deaf world is okay.
- Set clear boundaries. I stopped saying yes to everything. Instead I learnt to say no to put my own mental health first and practise better self-care.
As a result, I felt it was safe to be my authentic self and that I belonged.
I also felt heard and understood and that my differences and contributions were valued. I became less stressed and anxious so that, overall, my mental health improved.
Tips for self-care and good mental health
It took me a while to say I am not okay. But it really is okay not to be okay.
Self-care is so important to maintain good mental health and entirely within your control. Based on my personal experience, here are my self-care tips:
- Build your support systems at work – connect with others like yourself, pick good allies and join employee networks
- Know where to get mental health support, including counselling conversations at work in a safe space
- Take regular breaks to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Fresh air and a hot or cold drink can do wonders.
- Take care of your body too. Exercise if you can. Get a good night’s sleep and eat a balanced diet. All these help to build resilience against any barriers you may face.
- Use meditation or mindfulness to help your mental health at work. This is a great way of helping you to become more aware of yourself and notice your thoughts and feelings. It can also help you gain new perspectives and improve mental health by tackling unhelpful thoughts you may have.
- Remind yourself of your strengths as a person with a disability. Your resilience and tenacity are superpowers! Any barriers and attitudes we face every day are not a reflection of your self-worth and you don’t need to be validated by anyone else.
How the manager and workplace culture can help maintain good mental health
Managers and leaders are crucial in helping employees with disabilities maintain good mental health in the workplace. Steps they can take to do this include:
- Create an inclusive, supportive and safe workplace that encourages employees to open up about their disability and mental health. Find safe spaces where employees can talk in confidence without fear of judgement or unconscious bias.
- Continuously check in. Simply ask them if they are okay. Look out for anyone who may feel left out or like an outsider and make an effort to reach out.
- Be consistent in your support. Support that is there one day and removed the next can be damaging and removes the important psychological safety net.
- Be an active ally. This is incredibly important for people with disabilities as they provide that safety net. You can step in if things get a little difficult, to remove any discomfort and fear. Learn to listen to issues they face and become confident in talking about them.
- Engage early in relationships. Actively show that you care about others.
- Call out and address non-inclusive behaviours you witness or are alerted to.
- Be explicit in your interactions about the importance of understanding and valuing differences. Demonstrate inclusive behaviours.
- Adapt your working styles to work with employees effectively and remove any discomfort and stigma.
- Look out for and implement ways the team can support people with disabilities.
Having a disability such as profound deafness can be isolating and lonely. We cannot overcome society’s barriers alone. Whilst those barriers may not be within your direct control to remove, everyone and anyone can reach out to people with disabilities and ask “Are you okay? How can I help?”
Two simple questions that could mean the world, and for some, could save their life.
If you would like to learn more about creating safe spaces for good mental health in your business, please contact me via my website or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org for further training and help.
Written in collaboration with Written by Lyds Ltd (www.writtenbylyds.com)