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Helen shares with us the importance of organisational culture in creating inclusive environments where the needs and requirements of all team members are respected. It takes effort, awareness and time: the museum where Helen works has the awareness, has made the effort and taken the time. It can be done! Let's do it for usability testing, too.

Hearing loss and home working

By Helen McKenna-Aspell (13/06/2022)

All good stories start with getting to know the main character, so here’s a bit about me.

I work for one of the UK’s national museums. I joined just 6 weeks before COVID restrictions hit and as someone who manages severe and unpredictable asthma, I was quickly (and understandably) working from home. As COVID worsened, I was labelled clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) and required to shield; this remained the case for almost two years. I suffer from hearing loss and require a hearing aid, so the switch to life-by-video-call was a little daunting and sometimes fraught…


Working with hearing loss was not without its challenges. When newly diagnosed, and not working for the museum, I would make the reasonable adjustments to avoid any fuss. I would always sit next to the Chair to see the whole room; I would close the windows and turn on the aircon; I would use the cinema setting* on my hearing aid in large-scale meetings to drown out the extraneous noise; I would apologise profusely when someone said “I’ve been calling you for ages, were you ignoring me?”

When I started to become unapologetic, I would be forthright with my access needs: when presenting in meetings, I would insist they were not scheduled in rooms that were long and narrow; I would explain that my hearing loss means I can’t hear the starting pitch of a voice, so the Chair would need to give me an indication; I’d state that people would need to wait until the end to make a point - not because what I was saying was more important, but because I can’t hear the questioner if they’re out of my eyeline. I also gained the confidence to address the “I was calling you” situation. Over time, I stopped replying with “I’m sorry, I know it’s frustrating for you”. Instead, I’d use one of the following:

  • “My deafness means that if you’re speaking from behind me, I’m not going to hear you, you need to touch my arm or back to get my attention”.

  • “Even if we’re in the same room, it takes me a while to register what you’re saying, so you’re going to need to say my name first and wait until I respond”.

  • “Yes, I know you’re speaking at the same volume as you were previously, but I’m now facing you, picking up your facial clues and partially lip-reading. So, because there’s nothing worse for the both of us than you repeating yourself, please make sure you’ve got my attention before you start speaking”.

*mutes the sound of many mouths munching popcorn!

COVID – AKA life through a screen

Well, this made life a lot easier and a lot more difficult. For instance, working from home meant that I got to control my own environment, including background noises. Overnight I was no longer trying to navigate crowded train platforms, late trains, cancelled trains, and inaudible tannoy announcements to get to work on time. Also, everyone using Microsoft Teams to attend meetings meant that I was able to adjust my laptop volume so I could hear people more clearly. But there were challenges. Not everyone was up to speed with video-call technology and I’m not sure, as I’d only been in my role for 6 weeks, that everyone was aware that I have hearing loss. In a way, COVID and work-from-home-via-video-call meant that I had to declare my access needs sooner, and to more people, than I would have pre-COVID. Here are some example situations I have navigated:

  • a colleague may not need headphones but I need them to be using them because they come with a mic,

  • inevitable lag-time means people end-up speaking over the top of each other,

  • some people may prefer to keep their cameras off; I need them on to read their lips and facial expressions.

The last of example highlights issues of intersectionality. When striving to balance multiple factors or when you take an inclusion focussed approach, one person’s needs can impact another’s. Ultimately, communication is key; the museum cultivates the kind of culture where it feels safe to articulate needs. The experience of working from home is dictated by environment and circumstances. Senior colleagues have a duty to set the tone and be sensitive to the stress of juggling dependants, noise, disruptions and home schooling. Some colleagues, perhaps in shared houses, single rooms or studios, will need to have their cameras off. The balance is struck because they will then wear headphones so I can hear them more effectively.

So what now?

Ultimately, the impact of COVID on work has been profound. And it’s not going away. We now find ourselves embracing a more hybrid approach: some work on site, some work from home, some do a mix of the two; to create COVID-safe working we reduced the number of workstations in all offices and introduced hot desks; meetings and events are routinely held simultaneously online and in person. One of the most exciting and unexpected benefits of hybrid working has been the impact on recruitment. Within my team, because COVID showed us we can build strong and effective teams whilst working remotely I’ve been able to recruit very talented people who are not based in our head office.

With some people on site and some people at home for meetings, there are new challenges for me (invariably, I’m at home), new challenges for the organisation but also new learnings.

My personal challenges include figuring out how to balance headphones and a hearing aid. It transpires that when the virtual meeting is one-to-one, I can hear best when I ditch the hearing aid and wear both in-ear headphones. If the meeting has multiple attendees, I’ll wear one in-ear headphone and put my hearing aid into the other ear. To increase connectivity but manage my risk as a CEV person, I’ve discovered a number of outdoor spaces which work well for meetings. Unfortunately, several of these also mean I have direct access to coffee and cake. It’s a hardship I muddle through.

For the museum, hybrid working is very beneficial but it also has issues which could negatively impact the organisational culture. And which we’re yet to fully figure out. For instance, how do we handle the need for spontaneous meetings, where there’s more than one person in the office, and going through the mechanics of booking a meeting room would ruin the flow of ideas. You know, the shall-we-grab-a-quick-coffee-and-work-this-out-now meeting. Also, with hybrid meetings, the Chair has to manage the dialogue carefully across multiple spaces (those on site and those working from home). With the interactions all going through the Chair, it can affect natural meeting interactions, stunting creativity and dialogue.

Despite the challenges, we have learned a great deal about how to create effective hybrid working conditions. For instance, we’ve invested in decent technology, particularly octo-speakers, which have much improved the experience of people attending hybrid meetings from home. Myself included! Staff on site no longer have to crowd around a single computer because we have more appropriate, bookable meeting spaces. It has also opened up a far greater range of communication options. Pre-COVID, the options were face-to-face meetings or emails. Now, we can also choose to use video-calls, audio-calls and an in-house, virtual messaging system. As we approach 2.5years of this, we’ve also got much more relaxed at just calling someone, just as you would have ambled into an office, and we’re much more discerning about what comms we use for what type of interaction.


Effective hybrid working and addressing access needs aren’t down to tech. It helps, certainly. But it’s the culture of an organisation which really enables hybrid work approaches to flourish and which enable staff like me to share our access needs. Such a culture takes effort, awareness and time to establish and sustain; it’s built on inclusion and respect.

About Helen

Helen McKenna-Aspell is the Director of Fundraising for the National Museum of the Royal Navy. She has asthma, is CEV and suffers from hearing loss – she reports this order demonstrates which impacts her daily life the most significantly.

Helen McKenna-Aspell