Thursday 26th April 2007 – Joanna Wootten’s talk reviewed by James Kearney

‘Career plan? What career plan?’

Joanna Wootten is Deputy Chief Executive of Sign, the charity for mental health and deafness. It primarily supports deaf people who have mental health difficulties, and enables them to find equality, respect and fulfilment.

Joanna began her talk on a high note, with this song lyric on her illustrated Powerpoint presentation: ‘Climb every mountain, ford every stream; follow every rainbow, ’til you find your dream!’ An inspirational message from the Mother Superior in The Sound of Music – but was it impractical? Perhaps it was more realistic to ‘take things one step at a time.’

Joanna asked if we had fixed plans for our lives, before she traced her own winding path from childhood through school to college and career. When Joanna was very young, ‘my aim in life was to be a proper grown up’ and achieve the steady humdrum job, house and family seemingly expected of her. But life needn’t be that predictable, with everyone knowing their fixed place in society: young Joanna was bewildered to learn that women could become medical doctors and men could also be nurses. Other paths were possible.

Joanna attended both mainstream and Mary Hare schools (she was too modest to reveal her many prizes I found on the school’s history website) and studied history at Bristol University. After she spent a couple of years working and travelling in Australia and elsewhere, she continued her studies at the College of Law. This all happened before the arrival of text messages, the internet, communication support, Access to Work, the Disability Discrimination Act and other modern-day advantages: ’students are so lucky now!’

Nevertheless, Joanna found that she could ‘cope with being deaf’ at college. Compared to working in the ‘real world’, deafness was less of a hindrance. For instance, as a student, she applied for a summer work placement at Ford. At the interview, Ford ‘kept asking about the phone, and asked me numerous times, even though I had explained that I couldn’t hear on the phone. This was a reminder that getting a job after university wouldn’t be easy, so I was surprised to be offered a placement in the company’s personnel department.’

Law and disability

After college, Joanna joined the law firm Blake Lapthorn, where she trained and qualified as a solicitor. Her skills first led her to the Local Government Management Board in London, where she advised on employment law for local authorities. In her next job, she fortified her experience of disability issues at the Greater London Action on Disability (GLAD) whilst running the Greater London Employment Network on Disability (GLENDA) project.

She later joined the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) as manager of its Workforce Project, which promoted good employment practice in the charity sector. Now she’s at Sign, based in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.

As a keen theatre-goer, Joanna is a trustee of STAGETEXT, which provides captions for plays, shows and musicals for theatres throughout the UK.

Deaf at work

So she’s learned to survive and succeed as a deaf employee in hearing organisations, and then as a deaf worker in a deaf organisation. What were the challenges? Deaf people must be self-confident in ‘hearing’ situations such as meetings, to ensure they follow what happens. As a young solicitor, Joanna found it ‘hard to be assertive’ since it took nerve to remind (sometimes senior) people constantly to adjust to her deafness. She felt she was using up her ‘quota’ of assertiveness more quickly than hearing colleagues, who didn’t need to interject so much.

Certain tasks were more tiring for deaf workers; for example, you needed more time and energy to gather information that hearing colleagues could quickly speak or phone to one another. Work-related socialising and networking was also a struggle. As her reserves of patience dwindled and her frustration erupted, Joanna reckoned she blew her top about twice a year – what a formidable explosion that must have been!

Working in deaf organisations, Joanna noted there was more of an overlap between work and private life. The deaf community is small enough for people to know you through both working and socialising, so it’s harder to keep them separate. Also, deaf figureheads may have more of a ‘moral burden’ and feel a keener sense of responsibility to their community.

We watched a 1998 BBC News South feature about Joanna and her work, which exposed her striking resemblance to Hollywood star Kathleen Turner. In one scene, she asked a colleague about his pet dog. He regretfully announced it has just died. Oops!

This prompted Paul Redfern to highlight the ‘value of gossip’ in the workplace. He said how helpful it is to have a colleague, a benevolent ’spy’ in a hearing-dominated area, who will pass on the latest social and company news. Then the deaf worker feels more involved and in touch, and can avoid gaffes in conversation.

This DPN talk had voice over interpretation by Roger Beeson. Previous talks seated the audience in rows. This event placed us in a semicircle and made it easier for us to follow audience questions and share experiences, which Joanna often encouraged.

Even if Joanna’s life and career was unpredictable at the outset, her talk revealed a common impulse throughout her work – altruism, clear-eyed compassion, and a drive to make her part of the world a better place.





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