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Ripples of change: Advocating and innovating with Bobby

Ripples of change: Advocating and innovating with Bobby

To spread knowledge and create better understanding, we need people to advocate for those who are not able to advocate for themselves. One person at EF Education First advocating for the deaf and hard of hearing community is Bobby, Customer Loyalty & Engagement Specialist for EF Go Ahead Tours in Denver, Colorado.

Bobby knows what it is like to live with a disability—he was born deaf. He is one of more than 1.5 billion people with hearing loss— nearly 20% of the global population. At 18 months old, Bobby received a cochlear implant. This electronic device helps provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing.

Growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, Bobby attended mainstream schools for most of his life, meaning he was typically the only deaf student in the classroom. "I was the only deaf student at school for nine years of my education, from elementary school through my high school graduation," Bobby recalls, and he is grateful for the way his parents always advocated for him. "My parents were diligent enough to advocate for me and make sure I had my access needs met in school,” Bobby says. “As I got older, I knew I needed to self-advocate, which eventually turned into advocacy for others."

Bobby attended Rochester Institute of Technology and pursued a bachelor's degree in environmental science and a master's degree in public policy. "One of the reasons that I chose RIT is because they have a large deaf and hard of hearing population there. About 10% of students are hard of hearing out of a population of about 18,000," Bobby notes. "After nine years of school with little to no contact with other deaf students, I wanted to reintegrate into the community."

Bobby's advocacy began at RIT, where he pursued student government and advocated for change to university policies and the use of accessible technology. "To me, being an advocate means you are always looking out for excluded people or groups, and you actively do something about it," Bobby says.

After working at RIT during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bobby had his mind set on finding a job at EF, specifically the EF Denver office. "Growing up in Boston, I always saw the pink EF sailboats on the Charles River. I also had the opportunity to travel to Paris and Spain with EF Educational Tours during high school. Since then, I always wanted to work at EF," Bobby reflects. "When I saw Denver was hiring, I applied to a Traveler Support role and started at EF in August of 2021."

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Bobby in front of The Louvre in Paris, France while on tour with EF Educational Tours in high school.

Bobby in front of The Louvre in Paris, France while on tour with EF Educational Tours in high school.

During his training, Bobby realized EF Go Ahead Tours needed an accessibility advocate. "I knew after training that I wanted to help us get to a place where we can say yes to people," Bobby says, "rather than saying no because accommodations for certain disabilities aren't available. My managers at the time guided me on how to raise awareness about accessibility amongst EF staff, and I started the group Accessibility @EF to start those conversations."

Accessibility @EF is an affinity group for US-based EF staff members to come together, promote, and advocate for accessibility in the workplace. The group gathers to discuss ways to make the workplace more accessible for staff with disabilities here at EF. Bobby was happy to create an outlet for staff, and soon he started focusing his efforts on the customer experience. "I started focusing solely on product development more than our internal staff experience," Bobby reflects. "I think that's the biggest business opportunity, the biggest need, and where my passion ultimately lies."

Eight months into his EF career, Bobby moved to the Customer Loyalty & Engagement Team as a Customer Loyalty & Engagement Specialist. "My favorite part of my role is how collaborative it is," Bobby notes. "Every day, I work with teammates across different departments and offices. Fortunately, my supervisor gives me the bandwidth to work on accessibility-related projects in addition to my other work."

Bobby got first-hand customer experience when he went on his first EF Go Ahead Tour as a staff member. "On the tour we used earbud headphones, which were virtually useless to me as a cochlear implant user," Bobby explains. "With my cochlear implant, I don't hear out of my ear canal. Over-ear headphones are usable but are not the most beneficial way of hearing. And for anybody with an ear deformity, sometimes their ears aren't fully developed physically, so over-ear headphones and earbuds may not be physically compatible."

Bobby got more confirmation from other EF Go Ahead Tours customers that change was necessary. "Through my job taking customer feedback, I heard similar stories from our travelers who use hearing aids," Bobby says. "The use of hearing aids is common with the EF Go Ahead Tours demographic, so I realized that an accessible hearing device was a good place to start to make the customer experience more accessible."

Bobby reached out to the operations team at EF when he got back from tour to see what could be done. He worked with Tom Benoit, a Senior Market Analyst, on crafting a proposal. "Tom helped me turn my idea into a tangible proposal that outlined the impacts, potential costs, and more," Bobby says. Tom and Bobby identified what specific tours would benefit the most from having an additional option for hard-of-hearing travelers. They then worked with VOX to bring the induction loop headset to EF tours. The induction loop headset connects via Bluetooth to cochlear implants and hearing aids.

Adding an additional hearing option for customers was no easy feat. "The two biggest challenges were patience and coordination," Bobby says. "I had a lot of different ideas in the beginning, and it was hard to be sent back to the drawing board a few times. I learned to focus on small, immediate changes we could make, and the headset project was the best place to start."

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Bobby pictured hiking the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado.” class=

Bobby pictured hiking the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado.

The VOX induction loops are now available on all tours that offer headsets. "The reception from staff and travelers has been phenomenal," Bobby says. "So many people have told me how important this work is to them, and many travelers have taken advantage of the additional headset option and benefitted from it. We also have staff eager to bring their deaf or hard-of-hearing family members on tour now,” Bobby says. “The root of all this was to create another level of inclusion, and we've succeeded in doing that."

Bringing his passion for accessibility to work has changed how Bobby views his job and his work life at EF. "It has made me a lot more confident," Bobby explains. "Being able to talk about accessibility at work and bring my perspective as a deaf person allowed me to become an advocate for others like me. Coworkers feel comfortable and confident coming to me with questions, and it feels good to know that there are hearing people and people without disabilities who care about the initiative just as much as I do. That motivates me to keep going every day."

Bobby plans to continue expanding access for EF customers. "Down the line, the biggest change I would like to see is changing our phrasing from 'this is why we may not be a good fit for you…' to 'this is what we can do for you,'" Bobby says. "But of course, it is about the power of starting small. My next step would be to expand the headsets to the rest of our tour portfolio so that all of our tours offer them."