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The Girl Who Can't Answer the Phone

A millennial's perspective on being in the workforce, with a disability.

· Team Diary

"What do you mean, you can’t answer phones?”

I get this question a lot in interviews when I’m trying out for a job position. With practiced poise, my reply is always the same.

“I can’t answer phones, but email and messages are no issue for me. My communicative ability is not affected this way.”

This is when potential employers realize that I am technically “disabled.” It doesn't usually end well after this.

My name is Anna. And I have a hearing impairment. I lost most of my hearing after a severe fever when I was three. I’ve been lip reading most of my life. I can lip read in fluent English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

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Right now, I love what I do at Spa Monkeys, where I'm a marketing assistant in their Hong Kong office. It may sound like a strange role to be in, considering my disability is often seen as a communicative one, but besides not answering calls (it’s an email world anyhow), I have no problems at work or with my colleagues. Life is great.

It wasn’t always like this though.

I will never forget the day my mother knelt down in front of a mainstream primary school principal and begged them to accept me, a “disabled” child. She insisted that I would have no problem getting along with the other “able bodied” kids, or keeping up with my studies. Thankfully, they believed her – I graduated into my first choice secondary school with top grades. The grades allowed me to get into the university I wanted and the memory of my mother kneeling has been replaced with a better one of her hugging me outside the school gates when my qualifying results were announced.

The main struggle for me as a hearing impaired person, are group socializations. When there’s multiple people all moving their lips at the same time, it’s difficult to keep up with the momentum. What most friends take for granted – the casual back and forth, the ease of lingual rhythm, is not easy for me.

For a long time, I stayed away from socializing in general. I was afraid that I would be caught out – just like any other teenager with insecurities, I felt that my communication deficiencies exposed my disability to the public, so for a while I isolated myself. In my own quiet world, silence was my friend, for I understood it and it comforted me. There were no weird looks, no need to try so hard to keep up with rapid lip movements, no stress caused by my fear that other people were bothered by having to repeat their words to me.

But being alone also made me miserable. I was living in fear – of uncertainty, being rejected or worse, being treated like I'm mentally inferior. It hurts when people wrongly assume that I am mentally disabled because I can't hear. (That's not how being deaf works.)

I'm just like many of you: I strive to be better. I want to be someone that can give warmth – a person who can stand on their own two feet and have something respectable to present. With my mother’s support and unwavering faith in me, I began to meet more people in Uni and took on new challenges.

The turning point of it all though, was my volunteer trip to the Sichuan Earthquake Zone. My mandarin was so poor that I needed to bring a dictionary with me. Differentiation between Mandarin and Cantonese is extremely difficult for me as the lip motions are almost the same and I can’t rely on tonal differences to identify the language or words.

Traveling was another fear of mine: I can’t even hear airline broadcasts or boarding calls - most airports are not exactly disability friendly and I’d never been to China. The whole month was spent interviewing local households, NGO’s and business units, as well as formulating proposals with mandarin speaking teammates to help disaster relief efforts. From this trip I made close friends and took on a much more mature outlook in life. People were suffering so much – disabled or not.

There’s a famous saying I like.

“If a man is to die, what is he to live for?”

I want to use what I have to serve this society in a positive way. I want to overcome my fears. Facing fear is something we can all do – and it is a great way to defeat it. If we let fear rule us, we will never be able to go anywhere in life.

I know it’s hard, believe me. Fear is everywhere in daily life and it’s not always bad. But it shouldn’t limit us especially when it comes to hopes and dreams. I am so grateful to have the support of my family, my friends and colleagues. They help me overcome difficulties and I appreciate that.

I was so excited the day I was accepted into the company. Part of me was not expecting it. Marketing is a role based on communication and is highly presentation focused. A person with a disability is often placed in back office functions – away from clients, to avoid stigma or discomfort. The corporate world in Asia is still quite conservative in some aspects when dealing with people with disabilities.

I really appreciate that at least the company I work for recognizes me as a person – not a disability. I hope that other companies will do the same. My disability does not define me.

Update: After a great year at Spa Monkeys, Anna left the company to pursue her studies in Medicine. She graduated and is currently doing her internment at a hospital in Hong Kong. We love Anna and wish her all the best!