Ausnew Home Care | I'm a blind psychologist. This is how I've learned to 'read the room' at work

I'm a blind psychologist. This is how I've learned to 'read the room' at work

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I'm at my desk on a work call. I've just asked a question.

It's a challenging one, but I'm counting on it being OK because, over time, I've built rapport with the person on the other end of the line.

I await a response. The silence expands in slow motion. It's uncomfortable for both of us. They're probably hoping I'll rescue them from the need to answer.

Most people would jump in. Awkward silence isn't something we ordinarily tolerate. We're used to plugging the gaps, fumbling for something to say.

I hold the line. As a psychologist, I'm trained in how to make space for others to engage in a process of discovery. This type of conversation, where silence has a role to play, has occurred many times over my working life, while practising as a counsellor, group facilitator, trainer, service designer and more recently as a manager.

Being on good terms with the missing pieces is a necessary part of living and working when you're blind.

Making sense of the world around you

Research indicates vision is our most prized sense, with most of the ways we intentionally interact with our environment navigated with visual cues.

Having a vision impairment means I'm always honing my compensatory skills and my negative capability, listening for what's there and what's not. I put what I can hear together with the small amount of visual input I have left and do my best to discern useful patterns.

A lot of the time, my efforts are directed to perceiving vocal cues. The words someone chooses, the quality of their voice and their audible body language all fill me in. It's plain speech flowing freely, looping and shooting off on tangents versus carefully selected phrases, metered out slowly from a throat that's closing over.

It's the rustling of fabric as someone changes position and the direction of their voice; towards me as they share a thought, pointed up to the corner as they try to remember something, down at their laptop screen as they check a note.

I hear a door opening and closing quietly and soft footfall on carpet, a thin dark blob passes briefly across the narrow margin of light perception on my far-left before it's swallowed by the giant shimmering void that is my central vision.

A chair creeks and something scuffs the tabletop. From these things as well as my knowledge of context gained through experience, I know a colleague has entered the room part way through the meeting and taken a seat on the other side of the table with their laptop.

VIP status

I've been working on my ability to guestimate what's going on since I first joined the workforce as a receptionist for a city council in the 1990s.

I had to listen for people approaching the counter, engage them without being able to make eye contact, and explain quickly that our interaction might be a little different because I didn't have one of the requisite senses people usually used for these things.

I typically got the latter done by pointing at a badge I wore that identified me as a "vision-impaired person" (VIP). From there, it was a simple case of taking their question and matching it to the 200ish extensions I had memorised across the council's various departments so I could call the right person to pop down for a chat.

My memory was also an important prop when I took theatre studies at university.

Knowing where I was on stage in relation to all my cast mates and what was happening with scenery and action around me was all a matter of rehearsal, laying down those mental maps over and over.

And in addition to hearing, light perception, memory and spatial awareness, occasionally I've been able to call on my sense of touch as I did when I studied massage, where I listened in a different way for what the body had to say.

These different paths of early professional exploration kept leading me back to the same questions. How do we make meaning from what we observe in the world around us? What types of meaning make us healthy and functional? And how can I facilitate this process of learning and knowledge for others?

Choosing a career in psychology, which I embarked upon in 2008, seemed to give me the greatest scope to respond.

Comfort with discomfort

What I've learned is that reading the room is as much about being comfortable with the information you don't have as it is about making sense of the information you do. As a blind person, I choose to be brave and move forward even though I can't see where I'm going.

As a psychologist, I take an evidence-based approach, relying on scientific research to chip away at the unknown around and within us. On the way, I listen carefully and patiently to both sounds and silence.

This brings me back to that phone call. The silence has spooled out.

The person on the other end, my client, makes a brief noise signalling they're about to speak.

And then, out of nowhere, fully formed and miraculous, they share a major insight.

Courtney McKee is a psychologist with a disability, living, working and writing in Brisbane, Queensland.

ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability to celebrate the 4.4 million Australians with disability.


Source: ABC

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