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Heard mentality – how technology is helping deaf people communicate

Advances in assistive technology and a supportive workplace culture have made it easier for deaf people to work in the tech industry.

When Hamish Drewry began his career in IT back in the late 1980s, being a deaf person in tech required a huge amount of effort and organisation. “There was no email and no SMS,” he remembers. “Everything was done verbally and by telephone. Communicating in meetings was really difficult. I had a sign language interpreter engaged for every meeting, but it was a huge effort to coordinate.

“Someone would say they couldn’t make a meeting scheduled for 2pm, so could we make it 3pm? Then the interpreter wouldn’t be able to make that time. I dealt with it and took it in my stride. But it was an extra layer of admin and friction around every meeting. Things are much better now.”

Drewry has been deaf from birth: his mother, father and two of his three children are deaf as were all his grandparents. After gaining a first in biochemical engineering at Swansea University, he began his career as an engineer, but went into IT, he says, because he found it a more welcoming industry. “When I got my first job in IT in London, it was like a bright light coming on. When colleagues found out I was deaf, they said ‘OK, cool. What do we need to do to help you manage?’ rather than panicking.”

Drewry went on to study for a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Cambridge and developed computer simulation methods – then joined startup Generic Technology. During his 17 years there, the company was acquired by Convergys and grew from 17 people to a global organisation 65,000-strong. He left to co-found a startup, AGRIinsight, which focused on supporting the development of agribusiness in emerging markets. In January this year, he joined PwC as a Senior Manager working in insurtech – the application of technology such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotic process automation, and natural language processing to the insurance industry.

These days, although challenges still remain, it’s a good time to be a deaf person in tech, says Drewry. Big advances in speech recognition technology have enabled communication tools, such as Google Live Transcribe, which does a very good job in certain situations of turning live speech into text in real time on your phone or laptop. And forward-thinking companies are starting to realise how vital it is to make their hiring and day-to-day processes accessible to deaf people. PwC, for example, arranges face-to-face or video-based screening interviews to prospective candidates who are deaf or hearing impaired. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also enabling them to tap into another pool of talent.

“One in seven people in the UK are deaf [or hard of hearing],” Drewry says. “On one occasion at PwC, there were eight of us around a table. Six revealed that they depended on captions for a variety of reasons – either they could hear speech, but not comprehend it, or they had English as a second language, or they were disabled like me. Awareness is going up and people want to do the right thing. What works is when people ask: ‘What’s the best thing out there for this?’ For example, when PwC realised that Live Transcribe is available only on Android phones, PwC provided an Android phone, even though the company normally uses iPhones.”

PwC aims to incorporate assistive technology as standard – part of its workplace strategy to attract the best, and retain existing, talent. It’s an active member of the non-profit organisation, the Business Disability Forum, which offers learning task forces to large corporate and smaller entities in the UK and globally. PwC’s standard Google suite of applications includes live captioning on Google’s Meet platform.

“Having the right assistive technology is the right thing to do, of course, but it’s more than that,” says Denise Wood, part of the IT Workplace Adjustment team at PwC. “It’s about giving everybody the tools they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability and bring their whole selves to work. One in three of us either have a disability or will develop a disability within our lifetime. The workforce is growing older. We might all need assistive tech in our daily lives from time to time. If we provide that as standard, it makes everyone’s lives easier.”

New tech coupled with improvements in hearing aid technology and medical advances means that Drewry is able to focus far more on his work. He has benefited to a great extent from a cochlear implant, which gives him a degree of hearing, and can use a variety of communication methods depending on the situation, including lip-reading and automatic or human-assisted live captioning. They have made a huge difference. “When I founded my startup shortly after receiving the implant, I’d walk to a meeting thinking about how interesting it would be and what I needed to get out of it in order to progress, rather than worrying about whether or not I would understand it, and the logistics of organising a human assistant.”

Drewry says he appreciates the “open and supportive” culture he’s found at PwC. “Things are changing,” he says. “Many companies want to be more aware. At PwC, for example, I’m supporting its Disability Ability and Wellbeing Network and have been asked to talk about my deafness and also to support other deaf people including those outside the organisation. Some people don’t like to talk about it, which is fine. But for me, being deaf is normal.

“If you’re a deaf person who wants to make it in tech, my advice is to be very good at what you do, first and foremost. Do your job well, and people will want to hire you. Also seek out the companies that have a deaf-friendly attitude and a good reputation.”

Also see Online Meetings and Google Speech to Text Technology