Fast Food Fury: Hearing Loss and The Drive-Thru

Gael Hannan
March 25, 2013

It was early one morning at a Tim Hortons drive-thru, a few years ago……


“Mpray uh paken udda, heesh?”

“Oh yes, hi…I’ll have a double-double, one apple juice, and 20 Timbits, please.”


“Pardon me?”

“Mom, she’s saying….”

“Shh, honey, mommy’s trying to hear….sorry, what was that again?”


“I’m sorry, I have hearing loss, I’m not quite getting…”

“MOM! She wants to know what size coffee you want!”

“OK, Joel, don’t yell, I’m not deaf…uh, a medium coffee, please.”

“Cattle-bees whore-hollers en finny sense. Prst inno, heesh.”

(Giving up, I look pleadingly at my son.)

“Mom, she says that’ll be four dollars and fifty cents. Drive to the first window.”

“OK, I know where to go, son, I have done this before.”


Rolling  up my window, I feel embarrassed and my eight-year-old is frustrated – or maybe it’s the other way around, or probably both.  And when I reach the pickup window, Joel says in the painfully honest way of children, “Mom, they’re all looking at you.”  And they were – the other staff, who had heard the order-taker yelling into her mouthpiece, wanted to see the latest hard of hearing lemon coming through the line.

For people with hearing loss, ordering food at a drive-thru ranks high on the list of frustrating experiences. And it’s not just the sheer difficulty of the conversation; we also get panicky because during the slower-than-usual order transaction, 15 cars are piling up behind us.  We can feel the fingers tapping on steering wheels as the drivers realize they’re not nudging slowly-but-surely toward their morning coffees. We can almost hear the moment when those 15 (and counting) caffeine-deprived motorists start cursing, in beat with their drumming fingers. (In Canada, 99 out of 100 people wouldn’t dare honk to express their testiness, but I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else.)

It might have been easier and potentially faster if I had parked my car and gone inside to order. But hey, I’m just as busy as the next hungry motorist with a cranky kid, and I believe strongly in my right to use a fast food drive-thru like anyone else, without having to incur any extra, discriminatory stress.

The first drive-thru opened in 1947 when “Red” Chaney of Springfield, Missouri replaced the carhop service at his Red’s Giant Hamburg (on the famed Route 66) with a drive-thru window. Today we can order almost anything at a drive-thru, including money and alcohol, although most of us use them to feed our coffee and french-fry habits. According to retail experts, consumers have five key expectations from a drive-thru experience: accuracy, speed, value, quality and service.

Yeah, right.  For customers who are hard of hearing, deaf or have difficulty using speech, it’s usually impossible to give a drive-thru full marks in any of these areas, especially when the experience depends on verbal transactions with the disembodied voice of an order taker who has not been trained on how to serve us.  OrderAssist™, a company that manufactures accessible ordering systems, did a survey of 6500 deaf and hard of hearing people about their drive-thru experiences. 42% responded that they left without buying anything.  (I belong to the other 58% who would stick it out. No way am I going to waste all that waiting-in-line time, only to go away hungry. My motto is to eat first, be principled second.)  But 94% said they would be willing to patronize a restaurant that installed a communication-accessible drive-thru system.

There are solutions to the drive-thru dilemma, some of which lie with the restaurant and others that are the responsibility of the consumers.

The restaurant owner can:

  • Install a system like OrderAssist™, where drive-thru customers press a button that informs staff that they have communication challenges. Employees are alerted through a signal in their earpiece, as well as a light that turns on inside the store. Customers are directed to pull up to the window where they receive a form to write their orders. I haven’t yet tried this system, although there are a couple of Tim Hortons on the other side of Toronto owned by Mark Wafer, who is deaf himself and also the employer of people with disabilities. Now that I know this system exists, I can’t wait to try it. And when I do, I’ll be happy to place my order eyeball to eyeball with the order-taker rather filling out a form, because as long as I can see the face, I’m fine. But how wonderful to have options.
  • Customer service would improve by improving the quality of order-speaker systems.  Clear conversations  make for better order accuracy and faster service times (always a good thing).
  • Install superior digital display and order confirmation screens that tell clients their orders have been clearly understood.  Menu boards offering food combos simplify the order process for the client, and improve the quality of communication.
  • Provide communication and sensitivity training to staff, to improve their comfort level in communicating with people who have hearing loss and other disabilities.


Consumers have a job to do, too. We can anticipate communication challenges and let drive-thru staff know that we have hearing loss. Going into super-advocate mode, we can ask drive-thru restaurants, especially those we use on a regular basis, to install a system such as OrderAssist™ – adding that this would guarantee the return business and undying loyalty of us and our 10,000 close friends who live in the area and who drink a LOT of coffee.  But, if drive-thru’s are just too much of a nightmare, we can give ourselves few extra minutes and order inside, which has the added allure of restrooms.

It was early one morning at a Tim Hortons drive-thru, very recently:

“Mpray uh paken udda, heesh?”

“Hi, I’m hard of hearing, I’d like two medium coffees with milk, two carrot muffins, and for you not to say another word until I see you at the window. Coming through.”

“Good job, Mom.”

“Thanks, son.”

  1. Gael – I love your prepared order response at the end. And yes…I do the same thing, after years of depending on my young son and daughter to be my drive-through window ‘ears.’

  2. This is true for automatic voice recordings and the multiple maze of buttons to push. As a HoH, I miss the face-to-face interactions or ‘live person’ via phone. It can be painfully exhausting and anxiety provoking to place a simple phone call. Some days it feels like a Hercules feat.

  3. I love your last ‘order’…I’ll have to remember that one! 🙂

    Here in Illinois, there’s a popular Italian beef/hot dog place called Portillo’s that has a fantastic drive-through system. (I believe they do this because they are SO busy — great food and great prices — but whatever the reason, I love it!) As you idle in line, they have order takers walking down the line of cars. They take your order in person, leaning into your window, so you can hear and also read lips if necessary. They call your order in through a headset, put a ticket under your windshield wiper, and then another person comes by to collect payment.

    By the time you get to the window, you just receive your food and go — no awful speaker system to deal with, no communication problems. My HOH husband and I (deaf with CIs) always choose this place on the rare occasion we grab some fast food. 🙂

  4. This is so very true for me!

    I actually had an upset employee tell me that I’d confused her by pulling up to the window (though the instructions on the speaker box said to) and she told me to GO BACK TO THE END OF THE LINE.

    I had a screaming 2 year old in the car and I was just as pressed for time as everyone else in that line was. I left without buying anything.

    Now that toddler is 6 years old and he regularly “interprets” what I’m missing… so much to the point that the banks know him firsthand and automatically put a sucker in with my paperwork.

    But… I never go to fast food drive-throughs – only banks that I can pull up to closest window to lipread.

    What has always baffled me is that even hearing people tend to have problems with those speaker systems… so obviously there’s a way to go in improving that sound quality for everyone!

    (Oh… and a sidenote… those drive-throughs that have computerized displays to show your order and total? It’s a MASSIVE headache when they have them and don’t bother to use them. Really? What’s the point? 😉

  5. Thank you so much for the chuckles. My children also act as my interpreters once I give them ‘the look’.
    My daughter worked at a drive through and all kinds of crazy things happen at those windows so ‘we’ don’t need to worry or feel bad. I’m sure they prefer the odd hearing challenged person (as long as we are polite about it) over some of the completely rude and insensitive people who drive thru in a hurry.
    On that note ‘Ida lake semfri eyes’ after all this fast food talk! ‘Yes with 2 cat shi#% and a fin aga blees’


  6. In the U.S. Starbucks has a sign stating that if you are having difficulty hearing, to drive straight to the service window. Many McDonald’s also have orders showing up on a screen so that you can confirm that THEY heard you correctly! One time I went to a drive through and was stunned to hear a very clear speaking young man and the order went smoothly. When I got to the window I congratulated him on his clear speech and he said that his Dad was HOH and pounded it into him about the importance of clear and slow speech. I experienced all of this for 20 years but just days after being unilaterally implanted I heard drive through gremlins surprisingly clear!

  7. I avoid drive-thrus like the plague, but have been known to use them now and again, but not recently. When I do use them, I anticipate the communication challenge and the first thing out of my mouth is. “I’m deaf. I’m not going to be able to understand your responses, so let me just give you my order and then we’ll discuss it at the window if need be.” I then rattle off my order, which is usually just a drink, and drive to the window.

    Years ago, I had one harrowing experience at a Wendy’s drive-thru. When I got up to the window, the young lady clearly had an attitude, was impatient, and asked condescending tone, “If you’re deaf, what in the heck are you doing using he drive-thru?” I immediately pulled to a parking space, went inside, asked for the manager, and let him know that he needed some serious sensitivity training for his employees. I got my order free. I was secretly hoping the girl got the boot. ~~Michele

  8. Thanks Gael and the replies are all fantastic too! 🙂 I don’t use drive thru for much of anything – yet we are going to check out this first system you mention. So many CCAC members ( captioning advocates) are interested in this topic, and did anyone mention elevators (emergency phones, how about re-speaking real-time caption system there? and parking garages (large city ones) that use voice to pay your parking fee? That was a nightmare for me alone n Boston a couple of years ago, No kid in the car or on my arm! Help! Then a nice tall man came along :-).

  9. I also have bypassed the order taker saying, I’m hard of hearing and am coming directly to the takeout window (or cashier, whichever comes first). Most of the time, though, I’d just go inside. You add banks to this list as well. Really hiliarious, your translations.

  10. Now it is time for businesses to do the same for people with hearing loss. We need to ensure there are hearing/induction loops at drive thrus and service counters so people with hearing loss can hear the speaker at places such as check out points. This is mandated by law in the UK and needs to become best practice or the law in the U.S.

    Stores like Apple and Shake Shack are already piloting hearing loops but we need more businesses to add this excellent customer service to their stores. Excellent customer service needs to include people with disabilities.

    Janice Schacter, chair, Hearing Access Program

  11. Gael, thanks for the plug. The key to this is not the device, its the training. A simple $2 sticker can have the same effect. The main reason deaf people don’t use drive thru’s is because they have been “told off” in the past for slowing down service by not using the speaker box. I have never cared and always use a drive thru and ensure i get what i want but not everyone who is deaf has the courage to do that. Although the order assist is only in my stores, Tim Hortons will find a way to ensure deaf and HoH customers can use any Tim Hortons drive thru.

  12. Gael, I often turn around and ask my 4-year old son what they are asking me too. He’s still a bit too young to be embarrassed by me, but I’m sure that time is not far behind! I now do as you do, I give my order and if they say something, I reply: I have no idea what you just said, but I’m pulling up. It’s so great to read that it hasn’t just happened to me!

  13. I am Deaf allright, but I don’t have a hearing loss. I never searched for what I never lost.


  14. Great post Gael. I also use a similar strategy like you.

    1. Carefully place my order.
    2. Preemptively prevent them from offering me condiments, large sized drinks, pies and cinnamon twists.
    3. Tell them I will see you at the window.

    I would love to see more visual displays so I can at least confirm my order. The few places that have them are great.

    Bill, loops would definitely not work here. Few people can access their telecoils manually anymore. And if they did, all they would hear is the electromagnetic energy from the alternator of the car. Won’t help anyone who uses sign language.

    The best system for a drive-through is something visual.

    1. Peter, Hearing loops, like any other technology, won’t solve every problem – but they do make a big difference for a lot of people.
      Re “Few people can access their telecoils manually anymore”
      That’s a problem easily solved by ensuring they have a telecoil and teaching them how to use it – something that every hearing professional can and should be doing.
      Re: “all they would hear is the electromagnetic energy from the alternator of the car”
      True for SOME cars and then not necessarily every seat. For one car that I tested, it was the front passenger seat only. If in the car telecoil usage is important for someone, having a working telecoil may be useful in deciding which vehicle to purchase.

  15. Loved your post, Gael! Are you sure you don’t live closer? The few drive-throughs I go through sound exactly as you described–and I have (supposedly) normal hearing. Love your motto (eat first, be principaled second). Anyone who knows me would tell you that’s my motto too. Maybe we were twins, separated at birth? In any case, I’m going to use your strategies. Coming through!!

  16. Everyone who wants to contribute to the conversation on solving problems such as these please email me. I. Am applying for research grants to create customer service solutions for persons who have hearing loss. Consumers will lead the projects. Email Laura at

  17. This is a no brainer, but I have initiated some thought provoking exercises for people who have been in my sign language classes (hearing and hard of hearing individuals). As one person commented on measures to address this continuous problem I do the following when I am desire to use the drive-thru. 1) I don’t use the drive thru. Why? My hearing colleagues tell me often times there is a special going on and the speaker over the intercom system babbles away about today’s special, etc. As a hearing loss person I cannot understand anything that comes across the intercom unless the system the drive-thru business is of good quality and the person articulates well.. Deaf and hard of hearing people in general do not like to depend on others to be with and place orders. I am independent and can take care of myself. Until technology has improved where we can see each other via video or screen along with closed captioned the drive thru experience is the pits. 2) If I go through the drive-thru I plan ahead and write it out on paper. 3) I tell the employee I am coming around to the window with my order. 4) I tell them in advance how I am paying for it. 5) I suggest to management at the places I regularly go to for their staff to have pictures and pad and pen on hand. 6) Have the menu laminated for deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers. The shock on participants in my class witness and realized there are many things in our retail and social environment are not accommodating to the hearing loss individual. This was a wake up call and an intriguing experience for all of them. God bless them.

  18. Hi Gael, yes I have driven through the Drive Thru at McDonald’s, have placed an order, and I asked just for one item, and they did not put the price on the screen, so I drove through, but they overcharged me, and discovered while I sat there that they ordered the whole thing, so I told them that I only ordered on item and do not want the rest of the order, so I had to pull up to the door, so the person can come out and give me the money that was owing me, was asked why I did not specify what I wanted, and told them I was deaf and cannot hear the speakers, so his face turned 20 shades of red., then I drove off.
    I agree that the Drive Thrus need to me improved more.
    Holly MacKenzie

  19. I loved your post. I am just like you except I work at a fast-food place. I can take orders but when I do drive-thru, I’m hopeless. What you have described is what the costumer sounds like when I try to take their orders. It’s frustrating so the manager never puts me on drive-thru. Sigh.

  20. I am also visually impaired but also have the added burden of finding the drive thru!
    It’s a joke, lighten up!

  21. I realize I am commenting on an old thread and my thoughts won’t be popular; but it is my right to share them. Fast Food, Drive Thru- those are supposed to be quick, on the run, grab and go
    People who slow the process for whatever reason whether it’s a complicated order, a large 20 Happy Meals for little league or people with hearing/speech impediments need to park their car and go inside to the lobby.
    Yes, you have “rights”. Guess what? So do I and yours aren’t inherently more important than mine or anyone else’s and when yours override mine that is infringement of my civil rights to equality.

    1. Well, Hello SJNelson: one day you will have a challenge in life – if you are fortunate it will not be losing your hearing or going blind. If you are unfortunate you will keep thinking you are so very special and not show any kindness to anyone at all. PLEASE consider that no one asks to be deaf or hard of hearing and that companies should indeed provide much better communication mechanisms for customers who do have a hearing or sight disability. If you don’t understand our challenges then may I suggest a class in cookbook empathy.

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