“I’m two dead batteries away from not being able to communicate,” said Ashton Weinberger, SRP’s Social Media Lead, who manages everything from marketing campaigns to customer service on the utility’s platforms.
Weinberger – who heard the line in a recent comedy sketch – isn’t talking about her laptop and cellphone. She uses hearing aids in both of her ears due to hearing impairment – a disability she shares with 48 million Americans, or about 20% of the population.
The ability to hear their colleagues speak is something many people in today’s workplace take for granted. For those experiencing deafness or hearing impairment, however, trying to understand what is being said in a meeting or by the water cooler can be a daunting or even impossible task. It can even hold some back from seeking employment.
According to the National Deaf Center, close to half (42.9%) of deaf people between the ages of 25 and 64 are not working or looking for work. In a time where job opportunities are plentiful, this gap seems like an opportunity – if companies are willing to invest in inclusive workspaces and hiring practices.
Awareness, advocacy key to advancing inclusive workplaces
As businesses around the world traded cubicles for home offices during the pandemic, Weinberger found herself thriving.
“I am tech-savvy, working in my position, and a lot of what I do I can do virtually,” she said.
She realized quickly, however, that virtual meetings weren’t quite as seamless. Co-workers using only their laptop microphones, instead of headsets, were exceedingly difficult for Weinberger to hear.
“I recognized that I needed to have the devices to help me hear better,” she said. “Luckily, SRP made the resources I need available quickly, and I’m grateful for that.”
The experience also inspired her. When a colleague reached out to say they were launching a new Employee Resource Group (ERG) to advocate for those with disabilities in the workplace, Weinberger was excited to help.
Employee Resource Groups advocate, offer support for workers who have disabilities
“When you’re working in corporate America, and especially when it comes to disabilities that are invisible, you can’t always see things like my hearing aid,” said Weinberger. “It’s important to talk about these things so people can be cognizant of it.”
And, as SRP employees like herself returned to the workplace in a hybrid environment, she quickly realized that advocacy would again be necessary to ensure inclusive spaces. When some colleagues were in a conference room with her and she was working remotely from home, for example, she started having trouble hearing them due to the acoustics.
“I do not personally feel limited by my disability at work,” she explained. “But part of that is making my coworkers aware. Asking someone to repeat themselves, for example. I felt comfortable sharing my experience and how others could better accommodate me.”
Others, she knows, don’t feel the same, and in the new Abled and Disabled Allies Partnering Together (A.D.A.P.T.) ERG, she has found a way to use her voice.
“I had a lot of fears and anxieties about SRP’s ability to be accommodating in hybrid. So it was important to me to be a voice of employees, bring up concerns to management, and think about how the hybrid settings work,” she said.
Expanding beyond experiences to create inclusive spaces
She found a receptive audience and realized that her involvement could have an impact beyond even her own disability.
“A.D.A.P.T. is unique because we have such a variation in disabilities. It’s almost difficult because we want to be very inclusive,” she said. “So we brought in our nonprofit partner, Ability 360, to one of our ERG events to discuss the many unique communities within the disability community — and even the various perspectives within them.”
Events like that one, and ongoing communication about disability to her SRP colleagues, are what Weinberger says Disability Employment Awareness Month is all about.
Because while Weinberger herself has found a career and an employer that works with her disability, she says that every business must do more to ensure those like her feel included.
“Everyone knows someone in the workplace with a disability,” she said. “And that means there’s different etiquette and mannerisms you need to be cognizant of in the workplace. Everyone is there to get the job done, but it’s important to be as inclusive as possible.”