Toby Burton: How Deaf people can break the glass ceiling

Posted on October 11, 2017



‘You can’t be a journalist’, said my school teacher during one lesson on career choices. ‘You can’t communicate, so there’s no point in hoping for the impossible’. Well, look who’s communicating now.

I was born profoundly Deaf – the capital ‘D’ is used by people who identify with being culturally Deaf. These people actively use Sign Language, and are part of the Deaf community, going to gigs, the theatre, or attending Deaf meet-ups. My wife is also Deaf and our hearing twins use sign language to tell us that, yes, they do want more ice-cream.

Although I say all this with pride now, I wouldn’t always have been so quick to share my Deafness. At the beginning of my career, I couldn’t see the point of letting people know.

In the same way, I wouldn’t go into a job interview and say ‘Hello, I’m a man’, I just assumed my identity and focused on what I could deliver for the company. Perhaps it was because I was so comfortable being Deaf that I didn’t feel the need to make excuses for it, or using it as a calling card.

Now, I see that it’s important for others – hearing and Deaf – to see examples of successful Deaf people so that it helps others in the community to progress in the workforce.

It’s important in the same way that the accomplishments of women, ethnic minorities and the LGBT community have also opened up the landscape, and it’s particularly key for employers to see businesses like mine engaging a Deaf person in an executive role. It shows that ‘disabilities’ have no impact on the potential to break the glass ceiling and lead in the field.

After graduating from University College London, I started my career at Unilever, under their fast track graduate training programme. Now, I am Chief Financial Officer of Global Circulation at The Economist; the international magazine offering authoritative insight and opinion on international news, politics, finance, science and technology. We have a very healthy weekly circulation of 1.6 million and I manage a finance team based in our offices around the globe and support circulation’s ambitious strategic growth plans.

Access to senior roles like mine have been a significant challenge for Deaf people. Employers often make uneducated assumptions about the limitations Deaf people face, assuming that communication will always be problematic.

In fact, I can communicate fluently and directly with anyone, as long as I have a competent interpreter. While scheduling interpreters can be challenging in a dynamic business environment as meetings change frequently, and often at the last minute, an interpreter is simply another person who needs to be considered when booking a meeting.

Nowadays, technology makes interpreting at work even easier. I now have more flexibility to engage interpreters from across the country using high quality Internet video services, and I can more reliably expect to use my own language –  British Sign Language – to express myself fully in meetings.

There is, however, particular anxiety among Deaf people surrounding job interviews. I often get questions like, ‘Should I say on my CV that I’m Deaf? I may never get an interview if I do.

I don’t believe it really makes a difference whether you mention that you are Deaf on your cv or not. At the end of the day, the employer is going to see that you’re Deaf, and you shouldn’t need to make excuses for that – they have to see you as a person.

For our part, Deaf people need to think about how we can demonstrate the value we bring to an organisation. We should not expect to have limits placed upon us, but we also need to take some responsibility to free ourselves from the limitations we do face.

As for employers, they should consider the potential benefits of a hiring a Deaf person, not the risks. The boss who hired me understands that I add value because I have unique experiences to contribute, and appreciates that purposefully creating a diverse workforce expands the pool of experience which can be drawn on to the company’s benefit.

Part of the finance role is to make sense of complicated and sometimes bizarre numbers, translate them, and communicate what they mean, in a way that is clear and understandable. The fact that I’m a more visually orientated person means I can help others visualise things too.

Using me as a conduit for information also clarifies that information because there can be no room for subtext or talking around the subject. People can’t talk at once because my interpreter needs to process and translate, so having me can be advantageous for hearing people too.

I make it a priority to develop strong relationships within my organisation and I manage my team of interpreters directly rather than through an agency. I also arrange Deaf awareness training for new colleagues so they understand more about what being Deaf means.

The last time I visited the office in New York I didn’t take an interpreter with me. Instead, I took a laptop with a microphone and speaker. I had arranged a meeting with the New York Bureau Chief, whom I had not met before, and who didn’t realise I was Deaf until he walked into my office.

Maybe he was thrown initially, but after only a few seconds he came to grips with the interpretation coming from the computer via Skype, and we just got on with the meeting. That approach can be the most effective and empowering for Deaf people – just go in and do it.

Integration in the social side of the workplace, however, can be quite challenging for Deaf people and I’ve been also asked about this topic on many occasions. Social is an important factor; they are the places where you find out a lot about colleagues, and, perhaps, where the next career move might be.

It’s hard because you want to bring an interpreter so you can follow everything and participate, but it’s difficult to find an interpreter willing to do drinks or parties, and who can be relaxed; you almost need to find an interpreter who is quite similar to you.

And when you do bring an interpreter, it can all become quite formal, and the colleague begins to edit themselves when actually there are things Deaf people really need to know to gauge the atmosphere they had been missing in the workplace.

At the beginning of my career, I would always bring an interpreter, but in recent years I have decided to go without and use the ‘Big Word’ app on my iPhone. I type away, then those words get enlarged on the screen, and hearing people can type back. Although it doesn’t replicate the full access an interpreter can provide, it makes social much more relaxing and personal for me. Fortunately, at The Economist, my colleagues have downloaded the Big Word app on their iPhones so you get mobiles flashing around the dining table, which can be fun for everybody.

Some hearing people still say to me, ‘It’s a shame that you’re Deaf’My response is that I wouldn’t want to be hearing. If you were to offer me a pill that would grant me that, I’d be offended. Would you say to a woman,‘Take a pill and become a man, you might have more opportunities’? Of course not.

I have a rich and fulfilled life, with a wife and children, a challenging career, hobbies and interests. I’m proud to be Deaf and share the rich language and culture that goes with it. I don’t think I would have progressed so far in my career if I weren’t Deaf.

It’s just one facet of a diverse society, alongside gender, race, sexuality and everything else that adds to the richness of experience. It’s not about wishing and wanting to be something that I am not. It’s about recognising our differences, and celebrating them.

Toby Burton leads the finance function of the global circulation at The Economist, managing finance teams based in New York, London, Geneva and Hong Kong. He was appointed CFO global circulation two years ago.  He has been with The Economist Group for 10 years during which time he has held financial management responsibilities. He has created and implemented the finance business partnering function at The Economist. He started his career at Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch multinational consumer goods company, under its Future Leaders Programme. Toby is also the Chair of the board of Trustees of Royal Association of Deaf people, one of the UK’s oldest Deaf charities, founded in 1841,  which celebrated its 175th anniversary last year.

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