Hearing loss and Indigenous employment: two case studies

By and

September 20, 2020


The impact of hearing loss on Indigenous employment is a long-neglected research issue, and thus little is known about it. Damien Howard and Murri woman Jody Barney provide two case studies highlighting the nature of Indigenous hearing loss and how to address it.

New data from the ABS shows overall 43% of Indigenous adults have hearing loss (nearly 60% in remote areas) and that those with hearing loss are disadvantaged in multiple areas.

Seventy-nine percent of Indigenous people affected by hearing loss were not aware they had a hearing loss. Six times the number of Indigenous children had hearing loss compared to non-Indigenous (29% of Indigenous children had hearing loss compared to 4.3% non-Indigenous).

The bare statistics in the media release are dramatic in themselves, but a deeper examination is even more disturbing. Let’s consider what it means that so many people are unaware they have a hearing loss, as well as that they experience hearing loss so early in life.

The early onset of Indigenous hearing loss because of widespread ear disease means that the hearing loss is ‘normalised’ — people are unaware that they hear differently to others. This means people are much more likely to be judged by others for not responding in the way that is expected. Children may be seen as defiant, unmotivated or dumb when something is misheard and misunderstood. Because people themselves don’t know they are not hearing as well as others, they are more likely to accept the negative judgements made about them and come to believe things like they are dumb, or unmotivated. Or, they may resent and react against the unfair judgements and unfair treatment by others in ways that create social problems. Conversely, when a person knows they have a hearing loss they can ask for and receive consideration of why they did not understand, as well as not take to heart others ill-informed judgements. That so many Indigenous people don’t know they have a hearing loss means that hearing loss is having a much greater psycho social impact on them.

In contrast to the early onset hearing loss experienced by most Indigenous people, most non-Indigenous people who are hard of hearing have a noise induced hearing loss that has a late onset — mainly when they are over 50. Their hearing loss did not impact on their social development, schooling and occupational training. So, as well as the higher proportion of Indigenous people with hearing loss, the earlier onset of their hearing loss means it has, or will have, a far more pervasive and profound impact on their lives. The important statistic is not only in the proportion of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who have a hearing loss. The early onset of hearing loss and that the fact that people don’t know they have it both contribute to a far greater impact profile of hearing loss for them. The statistics on the different proportion of Indigenous people with hearing loss look bad, but it’s actually far worse when you consider when the hearing loss occurs and that so many are not aware of it.

The outcome measures described in the ABS reflect this. Looking at employment outcomes. People aged 18–64 years with a moderate, severe or profound hearing impairment had different labour force outcomes than people with no measured hearing impairment. For example: 37% were employed, compared with 57% with no impairment 60% were out of the labour force, almost double the proportion of those with no impairment (31%).

The issue of hearing loss impacting on Indigenous employment is a long-neglected research issue, so little is known about it.

The following two case studies are from Listening, Learning and Work. This book describes the to-date only research carried out on the impact of Indigenous hearing loss and how to address it. The two case studies describe successful employment outcomes and what contributed to them. One case study is from an urban setting the other is from a remote one.

Case study one: success in a supportive workplace

Naomi is an administrative trainee in a government department in a regional centre. Naomi has mild hearing loss that make it sometimes difficult for her to understand verbal instructions. However, she is very proactive in her efforts to make sure that she understands what is expected of her in her current work role.

Once a task has been learned, mostly through verbal instruction and being shown what to do, Naomi is able to get on with the work by herself without the need for further instruction. Naomi’s supervisor sees her as a mature worker with a strong work ethic and effective communication skills, and is quick to praise Naomi.

“She has problems in the initial tasking but once she understands what she’s meant to be doing she is fine. She always takes time to make sure she knows something, and if she isn’t sure, she will ask again. Sometimes if she doesn’t understand, you can explain in a different way and she will be fine. With the GST I didn’t do it well but someone else did get it right by explaining in a way that Naomi could understand.”

Naomi confirmed she got on well with her boss. “My boss is really good, I can ask her for instructions again and she never makes me feel that I am dumb.”

Naomi had been through a personal learning process that had helped her to realise that avoidance was not a useful communication strategy. She had worked and studied ever since leaving school. While she had failed to complete two courses and left some jobs, those experiences helped her to abandon the avoidance strategies she first began to use at school.

“At school I would never talk to the teacher. I would never ask them for help because there was too much shame if they helped you in front of the other kids… if I didn’t understand I would leave it or ask a friend for help. But you can’t do that at work. I found out in other jobs you have to ask but my supervisor now makes it easy to ask. She never blames me for not getting it.”

For Naomi this earlier experience of failure was motivating rather than demoralising. Her supervisor gave her confidence when she needed to seek clarification. The supervisor described the long talk she had with Naomi when she first started her present job. The supervisor knew that Naomi had experienced ‘failure’ in the past, and quickly identified the importance of communication (although neither knew Naomi had hearing loss) and the consequent need to develop different strategies.

“At the very beginning I got her to write down instructions given to her and that helps her. I really emphasised that she has got to keep asking if she does not understand. In the early days I used to check that she did understand, especially if she looked a bit perplexed. If she didn’t, I would not growl at her for not understanding, but would say ‘You have got to keep asking.’

“I have learnt that it does no good to growl at people, especially in front of others. You can’t shame people. I talk quietly in private, then I try to encourage them to do better, rather than growling about what they have done and I keep in mind what they are dealing with in their families outside work. You can’t just ignore all that.

“It is also good that there are other Indigenous people in the workplace that Naomi can talk to. She says this helps to make work a comfortable place for her.

“She is finishing here soon and needs to finish some assignments but I know she has not got a computer at home, so I have offered for her to come in and use one of the computers here.”

This was a relatively small office with generally low levels of background noise. Naomi’s supervisor had worked alongside Indigenous workers for 30 years and she went through a ‘communications retraining’ program with Naomi. She avoided public confrontational performance management techniques that Indigenous people often find discomforting and ‘shameful’. She also understood that Naomi did not have the kind of resources that are taken for granted in the wider community and was willing to provide extra workplace support to help her in her traineeship.

This was a highly supportive workplace for Naomi, thanks to the attitude of her supervisor, the low levels of background noise, and the presence of other Indigenous staff in the workplace.

Naomi herself also showed that she has learned communication skills that helped her to succeed, despite her hearing difficulties.

Naomi’s supervisor did not assess Naomi’s abilities on her initial capacity to understand instructions but on the way she capably performed tasks once she had mastered them. She also sees herself as partially responsible for communication outcomes “With GST, I didn’t do it right”. She shares responsibility for communication rather than just blame Naomi when there are problems. Her constructive attitude gave Naomi the confidence to ask for further explanations when necessary.

Case study two: stranger danger and the benefits of team-work

As part of an agreement with a mining company, a remote Indigenous community stipulated that a number of traineeships involving local community members would be completed. The fact that 60% of these trainees had hearing loss was not known by trainees or contractors at that time.

At first, the plan was to place trainees individually with contractors on the site, and assign them a mentor who would work with them. However, this did not work.

Many of the contractors found it hard to work with the trainees. These contracting staff changed constantly, and the trainees found they were continually working with new people who described trainees as ‘unreliable’ and ‘difficult to communicate with’.

Things were not working but the mining company was bound by their training agreement. When it became clear that the initial training approach was not working, the mining company employed the trainees directly, as a work-team. This was a very unusual arrangement in an industry which generally relies solely on contractors for most on-site work. Normally, the company employed only a few office managers and support staff to organise the contractors’ work.

The non-Indigenous man who had been employed to mentor the trainees became the team supervisor. This man had worked in the local community for twelve years and was known as someone who could work successfully with people from the community.

The Indigenous work-team soon became an island of social stability on a site where on-site mining company staff and site contractors were constantly changing. Neither the mining company staff nor the contractors had been able to really get to know the Indigenous trainees. The non-Indigenous supervisor of the team became the ‘communications broker’ between the constantly changing non-Indigenous workforce and the Indigenous trainees. The supervisor got to know all the trainees well, but found he was able to communicate more easily with some than with others.

When hearing tests were carried out the results showed that 60% of the trainees had some degree of hearing loss. The trainees that the supervisor got on with better were mostly those with the best hearing. The trainees with no hearing loss would often facilitate communication between the supervisor and those workers who could not hear as well. The supervisor noted that the trainees with hearing loss were generally the most reserved members of the team and had the most difficulty undertaking independent or individual work.

(Image: author supplied)

Eventually the team approach became a very successful operating model. The supervisor of the team became the only non-Indigenous member of staff who had worked at the site for more than a year. Within the team, trainees with good hearing were able to act as ‘communication brokers’ between the supervisor and those with poorer hearing.

The team operated on two stages of communication brokerage. The non-Indigenous supervisor was a first stage ‘communication broker’, (the company told him what they wanted to team to undertake, then he talked to the team and those without hearing loss understood him). Then Indigenous members of the team with no or little hearing loss carried out a second stage of communication brokerage – communicating with team members with hearing loss.

In many cross-cultural settings these processes often occur when there are people available and willing to do this. Indigenous staff consult, and seek clarification and guidance from the non-Indigenous staff with whom they are comfortable or Indigenous peers. These people are usually chosen because of their non-judgmental attitudes, and because they are willing to provide informal communication support.

These case studies highlight successful support that is inclusive, non-stigmatising and strength focused. Indigenous people affected by hearing loss, whether they know it or not, desperately wish to be seen as the same as others. Programs that require publicly naming difference are often avoided because of this. They show unobtrusive support provided by informed, non-judgemental people help greatly. Training employers, supervisors and work peers in how to do this can fast track development of these skills. Support from Aboriginal peers who have culturally derived nonverbal communication skills is usually most comfortable for those with hearing loss. The ‘social amplification’ involved needs to be enabled and not obstructed by workplace processes. Employment policy and practices that promote this kind of support will improve employment outcomes for the 43% of Indigenous people with hearing loss. You can read more about this in Listening, Learning and Work.

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