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After sudden hearing loss, an important conversation about race, disability, and equity

August 12, 2022, 9:02 PM UTC

Happy Friday.

My inbox runneth over with notes from readers ranging from comments on white resentment in the workplace—“It continues to be the biggest issue I face,” says one DEI practitioner—to the conservative push to censor reading lists and curriculum. But one note, in particular, gets us back to a topic near to many of you, which is Black health.

Edda Collins Coleman is a policy, communications, and government relations pro with a deep knowledge of inclusion work and one of raceAhead’s earliest subscribers. She’s a fixture in my feeds. But I didn’t know until she emailed me that she’d developed severe hearing loss immediately after the birth of her third daughter, Quinn. Coleman is Black, and while she was rightly focused on having a healthy birth outcome, she did not see disability coming.

She wrote about her experience for the Washington Post:

“Doctors aren’t sure why people can lose hearing during pregnancy or childbirth. Hormonal changes or high blood pressure can cause hearing issues, such as clogged ears or a background buzzing. But actual hearing loss in pregnancy is rare and losing hearing during childbirth, as I had, is so unusual that Frank Lin, otolaryngology professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of its Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, said he has never encountered it before…With a sense of grief, shock and profound sadness, I officially joined the more than 38 million Americans over age 12 with hearing loss in both ears.”

Disability is one of the few identity markers that anyone can acquire at any time, but the relationship between disability and race is complex. While becoming disabled is often unique to the individual, there are some individuals who are going to suffer more greatly than others.

According to this report from the National Disability Institute, some 14% of working-age African Americans live with a disability, as compared with 11% of non-Hispanic whites and 8% of Latinx. “This can be especially difficult for people of color who already have poorer outcomes in education, income, and employment, and who also are less likely to be fully banked and more likely to use predatory financial services,” writes disability advocate Donna Walton, author of Shattered Dreams, Broken Pieces, in the forward.

Creating professional pathways for disabled talent has typically trailed other diversity priorities, but a new embrace of hybrid workplaces and the growing emphasis on ESG measurements may change that.

Earlier this year, Disability:IN, the global organization dedicated to disability inclusion in business, launched the ‘CEOs Are IN’ campaign, which asks big company leaders to adopt the Disability Equality Index, an assessment tool for disability inclusion and equality practices. (Here are the top scoring companies.) Among the 124 CEO signers are Corrie Barry of Best Buy, Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Roz Brewer of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Andy Cecere of U.S. Bancorp, and Brian Cornell of Target.

Coleman is coping with the change and notes that she’s in an unusual position of privilege. She’s established in her career, and her excellent insurance covers most of the $6,000 cost of the hearing aids she now uses. “But for many older people on Medicare, which does not cover them, the cost can be especially onerous. Partly as a result, only about 28.5% of the people in the United States who need hearing aids have them.”

Removing barriers for disabled people through accommodation, workforce design, or policy change is also everyone’s job, she says. “While it was cathartic to write, it is my greater wish that it creates conversation, raises awareness, helps change how representation is centered, and increases accessibility in the workplace and society,” Coleman wrote on LinkedIn.

Speaking of Black maternal health and possible bad outcomes, I mangled a sentence in the last newsletter about Serena Williams’ retirement that failed to paint the correct picture of the bad outcomes Black women face: Non-Hispanic Black women are 3.5 times more likely to die in pregnancy and postpartum than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, typically from issues like heart failure, blood pressure disorders, and hemorrhage.

Given that pregnancy is so much more dangerous to women’s health than abortion, the new restrictions are likely to contribute to this grim statistic. You can read more on that here. More news below.

Wishing you a joyful weekend.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point

A new poll finds a “staggering” number of people couldn’t access health care during the pandemic. The poll, conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 1 in 5 households that experienced a serious illness in the past year were unable to get an appointment to see a practitioner. The study also found significant delays in routine screenings, diabetes care appointments, and mental health care. The disparities were grim, too: In households where someone was seriously ill, 35% of American Indians and Alaska Natives and 24% of Black households struggled to get care, versus only 18% of white households.

A reprieve for a library defunded for having LGBTQ+ books. Last week, primary voters rejected a proposal to use tax dollars to fund the Patmos Library, which serves a small community in Western Michigan. The library had been targeted by a small group of parents concerned about the LGBTQ+ titles the library offered. The provision, approved by a two-thirds majority of voters, would eliminate 84% of the public library’s annual budget, or $245,000. This week, local residents, and probably some concerned outsiders, helped raise almost $100,000 to keep the library open. Father of two Jesse Dillman launched the online fundraiser.“I am very passionate about this, and I have people that are behind me to do this,” he said in an interview with NBC News. “I think I have to do it now, because the iron is hot. If this is going to happen, it’s going to happen now.”
NBC News

This marathon season may end up more inclusive than when it began. Nonbinary competitive runners have been making inroads with race directors who are beginning to create categories for the athletes to compete in without misgendering them and making facilities more inclusive. The NYC marathon created a nonbinary division last year; this year Chicago followed suit—and over 70 runners signed up. Affirming races now include marathons in Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Colorado Springs, and Flagstaff, Arizona. Jake Fedorowski, along with other nonbinary runners, published a how-to guide for race directors and maintains a public spreadsheet of races that are now open to nonbinary runners.
The 19th

A new report reveals how a Cold War-era weapons program is endangering communities in the Southwest. For four decades, communities, including many Indigenous ones, have been exposed to unhealthy levels of radiation left over from uranium ore extraction and refining efforts that have long since ceased. This report, from NPR and ProPublica, describes a widespread problem and no accountability—some 50 former uranium mills, and about half have yet to be cleaned up or sealed. Charts, which include clusters of cancer patients, are referred to as “death maps.” “In one household close to the pile, we found levels of radon about almost twice as high as what the EPA says is an actual level that you need to pretty immediately clean up your house,” reports ProPublica’s Mark Olalde.

Parting words

“I have to make sure my hands are not ashy before I sign!”

Nakia Smith, a Black deaf content creator, on representing on TikTok, and her nearly 400,000 followers.

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