Rachel Bondi is nothing if not a leader. As Chief Partner Officer at Microsoft Australia, Rachel manages our relationships with over 10,000 partners, from small start-ups to major multinationals. She oversees a team of more than 100 people across the country. And, like one in five Australians, she lives with a disability.
But while profound hearing loss affects her life in myriad ways, it’s not apparent to the untrained eye. Like 90 per cent of Australians with disability, Rachel’s condition is ‘invisible’. And like many others, she once tried to keep it that way.
“You never think you’ll be the one”
Rachel was born with hereditary hearing loss. For most of her life, she felt the condition was manageable. But as she prepared to welcome her first child into the world 12 years ago, everything changed.
Determined to hear her baby’s voice clearly, Rachel went to the doctor to find out if anything could be done. She learned of one procedure that might work – a highly effective middle ear operation, with a miniscule – one in 100 – chance of failure.
“When you hear those sorts of odds, you never think you’ll be the one,” she says. “But unfortunately, I was.”
Due to the failed procedure, Rachel’s deafness advanced even further. She lost all hearing in her right ear and 50 per cent in her left ear. While she was thrilled to have a healthy baby girl, the damage from Rachel’s hearing operation was extensive enough to upend her bodily equilibrium, sentencing her to three months of learning how to walk again.
The cost of covering
When Rachel’s doctor advised her to take a step back from work, she didn’t want to hear it. “I was really determined not to slow down my career because of this, even though that’s the advice I was getting from everyone around me,” she remembers.
At the time, she was working at Microsoft’s global headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Wearing a discreet hearing aid, she decided to inform her manager and no one else. As far as her American colleagues were concerned, Rachel’s hearing was fine.
Her decision wasn’t unusual. Estimates vary, but between 4 per cent and 40 per cent of people with physical or mental disabilities choose not to disclose this fact at work. In Australia, where disability discrimination accounts for 37 per cent of complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission, it’s not hard to see why.
Like many others, Rachel decided to ‘cover’ because she feared that her disability would define her – at least in other people’s eyes. “I didn’t want concessions or special treatment,” she says. “I thought it would be a weakness if I was transparent, and I didn’t want to show any sense of failure.”
While she continued to succeed at work, this success was hard won. As well as doing her actual job, she had to devote hours of precious time and energy to ensuring she didn’t miss a word. “It wasn’t so much the hearing loss that got me,” she says. “It was the fatigue that came from trying to piece everything together.”
Learning from others
When Rachel returned home to Australia to take on the role of Chief Operating Officer at Microsoft Australia in 2016, a few things began to shift.
Back in Redmond, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, who also lives with profound hearing loss, had just been appointed as Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer. Watching Jenny speak frankly about life with a disability, Rachel felt she had permission to disclose her own hearing loss more openly.
As she settled into her new team in Sydney, this feeling only grew. “The people here made me feel comfortable enough to not just be open, but to start asking for help as well,” she remembers.
Today, that’s exactly what Rachel does. Every year, she’s becoming more comfortable letting the people around her know what she needs, and taking advantage of assistive technologies like real-time captioning and subtitles. In physical meetings, for instance, she wears headphones so that she can listen to the conversation via Teams, as it’s easier for her to hear that way.
“I do explain that I’m not just listening to a podcast, of course,” she laughs. “But I feel comfortable doing that because I just care less now.”
Putting allyship into action
In a workplace that made inclusion a priority, Rachel felt comfortable enough to disclose her disability. But how exactly did her peers create this sense of safety? And today, as we celebrate International Day of People with Disability, what else can Rachel tell us about how to be an effective ally?
“It’s about listening and checking in,” she says. “I often see people doing the kind of, ‘do I say something or do I not say something?’ when they’re concerned I can’t hear them. And I think it’s always better to say something.”
Rachel feels that we all need to get better at asking questions that might embarrass us. “You may not know what to say, and you certainly won’t have all the answers,” she says. “But if you’re curious and seeking to understand, then you’re in a good place.”