Ken O’Neill

Courtesy of Ken O’Neill

Disability as a difference of perspective

Ken O’Neill earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom in 2012. Today, he is assistant statistician in the input-output statistics branch of the Office of the Chief Economic Adviser in the Scottish government, where he helps analyze economic data and calculate the gross domestic product of Scotland. In his spare time, O’Neill, who has been profoundly deaf since birth, heads a project aimed at expanding the representation of mathematical and statistical terminology in British Sign Language (BSL).

O’Neill shared with Science Careers his experience training and working as a deaf statistician and offered advice on how to present a disability when applying for a job. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The focus should be on the job and how they can do it.

—Ken O’Neill

The focus should be on the job and how they can do it.

—Ken O’Neill

Q: What are the most important barriers for deaf students? What was it like for you training to be a mathematician?

A: In general, deaf students are regularly at a disadvantage in school and at university. Hearing teachers have little understanding of the broad impact of deafness and how to meet the needs of deaf children. For example, the communication barriers that deaf children face may ultimately lead to frustration, isolation, and withdrawal, which can seriously impact their school performance, mental health, and sense of belonging. Deaf students also often have poor access to English, so it’s more difficult for them to write answers to class and exam questions. In the United Kingdom there also is a serious lack in the provision of interpreters to support BSL users, leading to a vicious cycle whereby there is an insufficient specialist vocabulary within BSL to help deaf students (and interpreters) learn and communicate technical details in a range of academic subjects.

I went to mainstream primary and secondary schools that were attended by both deaf and hearing people, so I received most of my education in English, even though I also had teachers of the deaf for different classes.

I didn’t have that support at university, where I also rarely requested BSL interpreters for my math lectures. At the time, I was not convinced by BSL interpreters' ability to interpret mathematics clearly, partly due to the lack of adequate vocabulary but also due to the paucity of interpreters with a background in mathematics.

What I did ask, as part of reasonable adjustments to assist me, was for my professors to provide me with physical copies of notes and other materials in advance of their lectures. I also arranged to have note takers with me during the lectures just in case professors would add something important. As for discussing math with my hearing peers, I found it quite difficult, as they often had little knowledge of BSL, so we resorted to writing.

Though I succeeded at university, I must admit looking back that I could have used BSL interpreters more, and I do wish that I had even one colleague in my university course who could sign, because I found myself lonely at times.

Q: Tell us about your efforts to expand the BSL Glossary for mathematics.

A: Knowing my experience, a deaf friend of mine led me to the Scottish Sensory Centre in Edinburgh, which has been developing BSL for science, engineering, and mathematics in the BSL Glossary Project over the last decade. I initiated discussions with them geared toward expanding the signs available for mathematics and statistics, and in 2014 the center put me in charge of these new efforts. We have secured funding and support from the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the London Mathematical Society, and the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, and we are just about to have a workshop where deaf mathematicians and scientists will work together with linguists to create a collection of signs and terms based on the national curriculum.

Q: What sorts of accommodations or equipment do you need to carry out your professional role today?

A: For meetings and conferences, I use BSL interpreters. I taught a crash course on BSL to the other members of my unit, which turned out to be successful. Now I am able to communicate better with my manager and some of my colleagues due to their increased awareness and understanding of my deafness. This improved our team's communication and helped reduce our cost for BSL interpreters.

Q: At what stage in the recruitment process did you reveal your deafness?

A: On the application form, the Scottish government invited applicants to claim a guaranteed interview or assessment under the positive about disabled people scheme. Under this scheme, the Scottish government commits to invite to interview, or further assess, candidates who consider themselves disabled under the terms of the Equality Act 2010 and who meet the minimum criteria for the post. I made the claim and was treated positively. Also, on the form I requested a BSL interpreter; otherwise the interview would have been difficult, if not impossible!

Q: The U.K. Equality Act 2010 also allows employers to ask questions about health and disability during interviews that relate to the job applicant’s ability to carry out essential functions of the job. How would you advise scientists with a disability to respond to such interview questions?

A: I'd advise them to respond to questions honestly, without dwelling on their disabilities. The focus should be on the job and how they can do it. If they do things differently for any reason, including their disabilities, that’s fine as long as it’s explained clearly and realistically. Interviewers will be reassured when there are positive solutions.

It is also perfectly possible to make a disability come across as a positive contribution to one's work. I have excellent visual skills due to my use of sign language, which are helpful when working in mathematics because it is both a visual and written field.

When asked about communicating with colleagues, I responded that my experience with both deaf and hearing cultures—the deaf community views itself positively as a linguistic and cultural minority—means that I’m bilingual and bicultural. I appreciate the importance of different languages and how messages need to be delivered in a way that is targeted toward a specific audience.

Ultimately, it is important to not emphasize how disabilities affect our job negatively. This sends out false messages to employers that we are not confident in doing our jobs, and employers will often fear what they do not know.

Q: What skills and insights do you think scientists can bring to the workplace as a result of their disabilities?

A: Versatility. Sometimes we have encountered problems or barriers in the workplace due to our disabilities, but we've found ways to remove them. As a result, we tend to have a greater understanding and awareness of problems and how to deal with them than do scientists who have no disabilities. We also view the world differently, so we can provide a different perspective on real-world problems and models. Colleagues and peers can learn from these experiences and broaden their own skills and understanding.

Q: What is the best way for scientists to highlight these benefits during a job interview?

A: Employers tend to be interested in how scientists solve problems rather than what skills they possess. Employees with disabilities need to adapt a lot to deal with everyday situations in an ever-changing world, so employers will find this ability attractive. It is up to us to explain this clearly and in a structured way. We have to assume that interviewers know nothing, or very little, about our experiences, and we have to project confidence and belief that we know what we are doing and talking about. 

So we have to deal with any underlying issues we have, including our own attitudes toward our disabilities. Acceptance is a big thing, and if we accept our disabilities, then we will inevitably be better equipped to go about our daily lives and work comfortably.

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