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Deaf and a diplomat

September 12, 2011 - 0 Comments

It wasn’t something I’d ever considered before, disability in the diplomatic service, because I unfortunately, like most people, have quite entrenched images of what a diplomat looks like. So I marveled when I heard that a female diplomat who was deaf had risen through the ranks.

But unfortunately whilst the story starts there, it isn’t where it ends.

Jane Cordell worked in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) from 2001 and in 2010 was offered the post of deputy head of mission in Kazakhstan, only to have the offer revoked when the FCO decided that making adjustments for her disability would be too expensive. They deemed the cost of her posting was beyond the “reasonable adjustments” which employers are obliged to make for disabled staff.

But I wonder if they’ve overlooked the value they’ll be missing out on, given the extra abilities and commitment Cordell’s disability generates.

Here’s what Cordell said about the role of diplomacy and her disability:

“I find that diplomacy requires, as you say, the ability to read people.  And interestingly I think people with hearing loss develop the ability to read people, so I think in some ways being a deaf diplomat brings you an advantage.

When I walk into a room, I pick up immediately a sense of what the atmosphere is, whether there is going to be a rapport with the speakers, what’s going on. You read people’s faces, their gestures, and you can pick up messages that possibly people who aren’t deaf couldn’t. “

Now perhaps reading body language may seem like a fairly slender added contribution, given the high calibre people we believe most diplomats to be. But I think this different contribution is fascinating in an environment where so many subtleties of culture, politics, language, conflict, agreement and personality come into play. As Cordell said:

“It brings each meeting automatically on to a more human level as I have to explain a little, at first, who the lip speaker is and what they do. Many say working with me has opened their eyes to the possibilities for deaf people. “

Having someone around who spots the unspoken as much as they understand words said, might be very useful indeed in many a negotiating environment.

But beware your feet! In the same interview Cordell shares how much information she thinks can be given away by the lower half of our bodies. She explains how the top half of us learns how to lie better. But feet tapping and toe curling really give the game away!

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