MY STORY: Hotelier Calum Milne on fighting back after his most challenging year yet


Former managing director at Llangoed Hall, Calum Milne is recovering from cancer that has left him deaf and forced him to discover new ways of working. Here he explains how the industry needs to focus on making it a level-playing field for less-able people looking for work.

Can you explain your story over the past year?

In a nutshell, I was holidaying in Tenerife, as I usually do with my parents and we have done for the last 30 years, and I didn’t feel 100%. I was quite conscious of the fact that my ears didn’t pop on the aeroplane flight over and it was niggling me all week.

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After 12 days, we came home as scheduled and I made a phone call to my doctor who said, because it was a Saturday, to go to the hospital and just get checked out. The hospital unfortunately said they only dealt with heart attacks and not earache.

I went back to my doctor on the Monday morning for an emergency appointment and they sent me straight to Dundee Nine Wells Hospital and, from thereon, I had scans, bloods tests, was given antibiotics and kept in for 48 hours. On a Sunday morning, I got a phone call and, by this point, my hearing was playing up dramatically and I could hardly hear anything. My mother took the call and it was the hospital saying could I come in straightaway. I went in and that was me for two and a half weeks with neck cancer. Tumours in my neck were removed.

Now, after seven operations – four on my ears alone – I have been left profoundly deaf. There is a chance of maybe a cochlear implant but I’m still awaiting appointments for that because I just haven’t been well enough to undergo that operation which involves drilling into the skull. Surprisingly, that doesn’t sound that bad compared to some other things I’ve been through.

I am now deaf and learning to live with it. I’ve picked up lipreading quite well and my tutor is a fantastic lady who was recommended to me by my doctor. Every week, she sends me things to say and do. I am trying to keep my voice and the more activities I do, the more I can keep my tone and avoid shouting, which unfortunately happens to a lot of deaf people who don’t hear the tone.

Every morning, I program my voice in my mind by using the dB skills on my app on my phone that tells me if I am speaking calmly, loudly, very loudly or quietly. It’s a new learning curve all round, so that’s been my last year.

It’s been nine months of hell for my parents. It didn’t really bother me as I just had to deal with it and get on with it, but watching them has been more upsetting than anything else.

My advice to hospitality businesses is to spend money to make all feel inclusive

What was your attitude and approach to employing less-able people prior to 2020? 

I have no problem employing less-able people, as I treat every individual on his or her merits. With a less able person, I would adapt to work around what he or she is able to do. There is equipment available that covers everything. For example, I have a pager that tells me if the fire alarm is going off or the phone is ringing. I’m no different to anybody else. Sir Bernard Ashley, who was the founder of the award-winning country house hotel Llangoed Hall, near Brecon was a very liberal-minded man and I would commend him for that. He told me the trick was to treat people like you would want to be treated yourself.

We had a couple of Down’s Syndrome people who helped us out. One was a gardener and client guide and one was a cleaner. They did their jobs very well. One was with us for 22 years and the other one 10 years.

How do you think the hospitality industry fares compared to other industries when it comes to employing less able people? 

I would like to think that the hospitality industry is very fair-minded and very good, but actually I have come across exactly the opposite. Sometimes it bothers me and there are occasionally terrible examples. The Institute of Hospitality, of which I’m a fellow, holds online courses and you cannot participate if you are deaf because they are done on Zoom. Due to the cost, they will not install captioning or subtitles, as it’s called. Deaf people and maybe short-sighted people would benefit from subtitles. Sadly, our own Institute is not prepared to pay the money to enable deaf people to participate on a course about encouraging deaf people to stay in a hotel. 

Have you seen any innovative examples of companies within the sector helping less able people find work in hospitality?

My advice is to get yourself a good agent who knows you personally. Meet and chat with them over coffee, if you can be socially distant. I have a wonderful couple of agents who look after me while I look for a new job. This is not the right time to be looking for work during the Covid pandemic, but actually it’s not the right time to be sitting back and dwelling on what happened to me. It’s time to get up off my backside, get myself going and show that I’ve got something to give after 31 years’ experience in the luxury country house hotel market.

What can the hospitality sector do to ensure less able people are given a fairer chance of employment? 

Flexibility is the key here. Treat people as you would want to be treated yourself, be fair, open-minded, honest and don’t skirt around things. Just be straightforward but polite about it and then everybody will get on. My advice to hospitality businesses is to spend money to make all feel inclusive.

What are the biggest struggles you have faced over the past year? 

That’s easy, Zoom calls. Have you ever tried to lipread somebody on a zoom call? I see the face for about three seconds at the very beginning of a phone call before I Zoom in to try and get a full blown picture of the lips moving. It’s very, very difficult. Now I’ve got it sussed; I use my iPad for the Zoom calls and my telephone is on. A special app hears what the person speaking is saying and converts it into text for me so that I can read it. Sometimes, due to pixilation, it is very difficult to read somebody’s lips so I’ve learnt to be adaptable.

How have your experiences changed in trying to secure employment?

Well, I’ve got a couple of agents & a press officer working for me on that front now, but this isn’t the time, as I said earlier, to be looking for a job. I’ve got 31 years’ experience of resurrecting country house hotels from the wilderness to Relais & Châteaux Hotel of the Year. It’s all about the team that I appoint, not just about me. If anyone does need a luxury country house hotel manager with this experience, or possible Hotel Inspector please get in touch directly.

Have you lent on any hospitality charities during this time?

No, I haven’t actually asked any of the charities for any help. I am very well supported by my parents and it’s not the sort of thing I would do anyway. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve got some savings that enable me to do things myself and get the equipment I need, such as an Apple Watch which receives messages and phone calls  and makes me more connected. A new vibrating pillow pager that tells me when my phone is ringing, when the front door bells are ringing and when the smoke detector is going off, which is usually when the toast is getting burnt in the morning. A good bit of technology. 

 My mind is also very sharp still and I want to be honest with everybody. I went for an interview and said that I was deaf. The interviewer was polite, but the facial expression was of shock and horror until I started to speak to them. One of the people asked could I speak Danish. I could show them that, despite being deaf, I was more than capable of speaking a foreign language and get my tone correct.

The expressions were priceless.

I have a little expression that I used: when it’s a tough time you are rubber duck because rubber ducks just keep bouncing back. You deal with what you’re given and mine is deafness in which case I’m dealing with it with various equipment, lessons et cetera. You get on with it as there’s no point in dwelling on it. If the doctors can fix it later in life, that will be great. If not, I will have an implant disk stuck on the inside of my forehead skull and that will be fine. Otherwise I will live in a very quiet world but can still make a lot of noise!

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Zoe Monk

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