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Cultural Connection: Celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month with Kelly Von Lunen

October 19, 2021

The U.S. Department of Labor observes October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month to commemorate the many and varied contributions of people with disabilities to America’s workplaces and economy.

To continue our commitment to our values and promote a culture of inclusion, the Ascend communications team spoke with Kelly Von Lunen, managing editor in shared services, who provided an insightful reminder to approach life from a person-first perspective — and the importance of understanding and appreciating the lived experiences of others.

Ascend Communications (AC): Tell us about your role at Ascend.

Kelly Von Lunen (KVL): I’m the managing editor within learning products. I’ve been here almost 10 years and work on a team with copy and developmental editors helping create print and online products for two of Ascend’s brands — ATI and NHA. I also serve as a member of our internal Diversity & Inclusion Council and am working on my master’s [degree] right now, focusing on diversity and inclusion in higher education.

AC: How did you become interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion?

KVL: Being an individual who is hard of hearing, it’s very personal to me. There’s a very strong Deaf community specifically for people who are manual language first — but not for people like me, who are hard of hearing but also don’t fit in Deaf culture.

There’s kind of a middle ground for people who might have an invisible illness [a medical condition that is not outwardly visible to others] but are expected to perform at an abled level. There’s a kind of normativity that everyone is fully able unless they strongly show you otherwise.

AC: We recently learned about the complexity of identity among Hispanic, Latino/a and Latinx communities in a conversation with [Ascend Learning Director of Talent Development & Inclusion] Carolyn Vasquez, who shared that self-identification is a personal decision based on one’s own lived experiences. Would you say that same concept is applicable to people with disabilities?

KVL: I think that that self-identification is really important, and sometimes forget that people view me as disabled. If I [were to] take out my hearing aids, I would be functionally deaf — but I’m not part of the Deaf community. Even though I am a hard of hearing person, that is not a key part of my identity.

I’m 36 and I’ve worn hearing aids since I was four. I don’t know what the [official] line is between hard of hearing and deaf, but there’s a distinction between Deaf with a capital D and deaf with a lowercase d.

[Editor’s Note: According to the National Association of the Deaf, Deaf with a capital D refers to a particular group of deaf people who share a language — American Sign Language (ASL) — and a culture. When spelled with a lowercase d, deaf refers to the audiological condition of not hearing].

AC: You mentioned this journey began for you at a young age. What was that like?

KVL: The thought has always been that something happened after I started to talk, but my hearing loss was diagnosed when I was four. My parents noticed that I would grab people’s faces to make them look at me and I would sit really close to the TV. At the time, schools didn’t offer a hybrid experience for students with hearing loss. You had to either pick a [mainstream] school or a school for the deaf — who told me my hearing was too high-functioning [to attend school there]. My parents took me to an audiologist, who had a similar viewpoint — they said, “Why is she here? She talks fine.”

AC: Can you trace your hearing loss to an event or experience?

KVL: Not an event or experience, but likely genetics, because my five-year-old son is having a similar experience [with his hearing]. I took him to an audiologist, and it was nearly the same experience as my own — the initial response was, “why is he here?” But they put him through the hearing test and discovered hearing loss.

AC: How did that feel having your son’s experience mirror your own?

KVL: It’s hard for me not to project my own experience on my child, but he’s going to have a different experience than I am. We’re in a different school district and in a different economic situation than I had growing up. Technology has progressed a lot in 30 years and the world has changed to be more accepting in a lot of ways — so that’s exciting — but it’s also exhausting to know that on some level I will need to continue to advocate not only for myself, but for him, too.

AC: How has being hard of hearing influenced your professional life? 

KVL: Working as an editor [at Ascend], I focus and try to keep a good pulse on person-first language. We have made a lot of strides in the past 10 years to improve that, reducing or removing a lot of biased language from educational materials. It’s important to have a person-first approach in everything.

Speaking from my own experience, I simply ask for what I need in a professional setting. It’s important for me that people turn on their cameras because seeing their face(s) and being able to lip read greatly enhances my ability to understand and interpret what they’re saying. I’ve been fortunate that the people I work with directly are all very understanding and accommodating, as are many of the people I meet with.

AC: How can folks be more accommodating towards people with hearing loss?

KVL: If somebody doesn’t hear you, don’t assume that they didn’t understand it. They just need you to repeat it one more time, and if you can, repeat it the exact same way instead of rephrasing. For me, I’ve already got this “Wheel of Fortune” puzzle in my brain right now with about 60% of the information, and I’m working to fill in the other pieces. If you rephrase what you said, I have to start over. If that still isn’t working, then try rephrasing yourself.

AC: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us. Your perspective and experience have been so enlightening, and we look forward to sharing it with others.

KVL: Thanks for the opportunity. Disabilities are not monolithic, and people experience things in different ways. It’s important to be able to connect with people and hear about their lived experiences.

***

Five Tips to Communicating with People with Hearing Loss

Combining tips and resources from the Hearing Loss Association of America and the Association for the Study of Higher Education, here is a helpful guide on how to communicate and host meetings with people who have hearing loss.

  1. Speak clearly, distinctly and at normal speed unless asked to slow down. Use a normal tone unless you are asked to raise your voice.
  2. Speak expressively and provide a clear view of your mouth so lip reading is possible. Because persons who are deaf or hard of hearing [sometimes] cannot hear subtle changes in tone, which may indicate sarcasm or seriousness, many will rely on your facial expressions, gestures, and body language to understand you.
  3. If you are having trouble understanding the speech of a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, feel free to ask them to repeat. If that does not work, then use a paper and pen.
  4. Meeting Tip: Provide agenda items, background materials and names of attendees in writing in advance. If meeting in person, provide seating so that the person with hearing loss has their back to any windows and sits as close to the main speaker as possible.
  5. Meeting Tip: Background noise, music, cross-conversations, reverberation, and distance from the speaker all contribute to a difficult listening environment. Ensure that subtitles and/or the meeting transcript are enabled for all users. Ask what can be done to make hearing easier.