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      Ewen Stevenson, Chief Financial Officer of RBS began to lose his hearing at 40. He tells us how it affected him and how he overcame it.

      By: Ewen Stevenson | 15 February 2018
      Working for change
      Ewen Stevenson
      Ewen Stevenson was appointed Chief Financial Officer of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), in 2014. Raised in New Zealand, he’s worked with one of the world’s leading banks and as an adviser to the UK government on how to restore confidence in financial institutions following the 2008 banking crisis. A key part of his agenda now is to make disability awareness part of ‘business as usual’.

      “I have a hereditary condition affecting the middle ear bones. One in three people who carry the gene have hearing loss triggered at some point – but it’s unknown why. As it’s a progressive hearing loss, it’s not something I noticed, at first, but my wife kept telling me to turn the TV volume down and stuff like that.

      “About ten years ago, when I was 40, I went for a medical. I had a hearing test which confirmed that the hearing in my right ear was poor. So I had an operation called a stapedectomy, where they take out the middle ear bone and put a plastic amplifier in its place. It worked fantastically in my right ear and, five years later, they did the same on my left. But during that procedure, they accidentally perforated the eardrum. By the time they figured it out, a few days later, too much inner ear fluid had leaked out, so I’m now
      permanently deaf in that ear. It’s a surreal experience when you go suddenly deaf; the whole body over-compensates, as it tries to figure out what’s going on.

      When I woke up from the operation, I had blurred vision and I literally couldn’t walk in a straight line anymore – my balance had gone. I had to have rigorous, specialist balance training for about a year – I still do the exercises now.

      Credibility in the role

      “At first, I was genuinely unclear as to whether I could go back and do my job anymore. The company I was with at the time was very supportive and told me to take the time I needed to figure it out. I was such a mess physically that I was no longer sure what I’d be capable of doing. I’ve become a lot more self-aware, I think, as a result – and certainly a lot more empathetic towards disability in general.
      I’m also quite humbled at some of the disabilities people manage at our bank on a daily basis.

      “Hearing aids have helped – the one on my deaf side wirelessly transfers sound across to the side I can hear on. Most of the time, it works fine but there are a few practical issues – I can’t triangulate sound, for instance. So, if I’m at the roadside, I can’t tell which direction the traffic sound is coming from. Or, if I’m presenting in the auditorium at work, to a large number of people, and someone asks me a question, I have no idea where that question comes from unless they put their hand up.

      “But the biggest practical difficulty is sitting in a room with lots of loud, ambient noise; my deaf side simply shuts down. In some social situations, it’s very limiting. There are times when you think you may as well not be there because you genuinely can’t hear.

      “I have to be strategic as to where I sit at a table, and I find, unless you tell the person next to you that you have a hearing loss, you can run the risk of appearing rude if you miss something.

      “I think, in general, people are reticent to admit to having hearing loss. But if there’s one thing I’ve taken from all this, it’s that if you’re happy to talk to people about hearing loss, then they’re very happy to accommodate you. The more it’s talked about, the more comfortable other people become talking about it, too – and it helps the bank to know what issues we’re trying to solve.

      “Trying to get an organisation to be ‘disability smart’ is a huge undertaking. When I first joined RBS, there were good, well-intentioned efforts going on but no defined goals or objectives. I became Executive Sponsor for Disability – and started talking about my own disability. It gives me credibility in the role: no one questions the fact that I’m passionately committed to improving the organisation in this way.

      “It’s a process that’s both internal, for employees, and external, for customers. We looked for the best, external framework to use and found it with the Business Disability Forum Standard.

      “This benchmark measures disability performance in the workplace. We set up ten work-streams across ten categories and we check, every quarter, the progress of improvement. In just a few years, we’ve improved significantly. It’s good progress but our goal is to make sure the processes we’ve developed become embedded as part of ‘business as usual’.

      “We’re lucky that, as a big organisation of over 70,000, we can afford to have a team of people who are dedicated to the inclusion agenda. Disability accessibility has got to be built in at a very early stage, especially when you’re designing new products and new services.

      “For instance, when we refresh one of our branches, we need to make sure, as part of that, that someone’s thinking about disability needs. We don’t want to do up a branch and then
      find out afterwards that it’s not accessible to everyone. So we’ve introduced what we call a ‘disability speed bump’ into all the core processes of the bank – making people stop and ask ‘is this being done in a way that’s accessible?’ Digitally, our mobile banking app was the first in the UK to be approved by RNIB as accessible and, with customers increasingly choosing to bank on the go, it was vital that we got this right.

      “Internally, people don’t necessarily want to come forward and say ‘I’m struggling with work’ – even though there’s a lot of help we, as an employer, can provide. But unless they come and talk to us, it’s hard to address the issue.

      “We do ask our colleagues, in a confidential survey, ‘do you have a disability?’ and about four per cent say they do. And, typically, it’s not uncommon for us, and other organisations, to see lower engagement scores for people who do have a disability.

      RBS named one of the best businesses for disabled people

      At the end of last year, RBS was awarded ‘Silver’ in Business Disability Forum’s Disability Standard, making it one of the most improved performers for disability and accessibility in the UK – and one of only a handful of organisations to attain ‘Silver’ since the Standard’s 2004 launch.

      All of the work at RBS to progress and improve disability performance is supported by an active disability employee-led network, Enable. This promotes awareness of disability and celebrates the diversity it brings, to create a better bank for colleagues, customers and communities. In 2015, the bank launched the first debit and savings cards designed for people with sight loss. In 2016, RBS became the first bank to have its mobile app accredited by RNIB. In the same year, it introduced a new service for customers who use sign language to connect to one of the bank’s advisers via a secure video call from a tablet, PC or phone – with a sign language interpreter relaying the call in real-time.

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