How to Serve Diners with Hearing Loss

Gael Hannan
January 27, 2014

“Hi, I’m Chelsea. Welcome to the Cacophony Café. I’d like to tell you about our specials tonight.”

Our group of six is seated at a round table. This is a good thing, because it’s easy to see everyone. The restaurant is dark-ish and the noise is rising by the moment. This is not a good thing, because noise interferes with communication. But it comes with the territory; as diners enjoy their drinks, their voices rise, adding to the din.  But we chose this restaurant, and if it becomes intolerable, we can leave. But we’re hungry, ready for a good time, and it’s me, the person with hearing loss, who suffers most from the noise. One out of six isn’t bad, eh?

As Chelsea takes a breath before launching into the specials, I raise my hand and interject quickly – not referring to her by name, regretfully, because I didn’t catch it. (As other speechreaders will testify, ‘Chelsea’ is a name articulated behind the teeth, with little discernible lip movement. So from what I can see, her name could also be Touchy or Shih Tzu.)

“Would you mind standing by me – I have hearing loss.”

“Oh, sure, sorry,” she says to a point somewhere over my head. Moving to my side, she takes another breath, and starts again.

“Our soup today is Barley-Beef with Lime – a tangy eco-creation made with barley grown within a hundred-mile radius, and beef raised on an emotionally stress-free farm, and finished with jus de lime from pesticide-free pygmy citrus trees.”

I think I’ve caught most of it, but to be sure, I whisper to my husband, “What kind of soup?”

“Beef,” he answers.

Chelsea plows on, at a rat-a-tat-tat pace.  “The fish tonight is a delicious grilled snapper with a balsamic reduction, accompanied by puréed, gingered parsnips and rosemary-crusted, oven-roasted potato slivers.”

Me, again. “I’m lost, honey, what was that?”

“Fish and chips.”

I knew something had either been left out, or lost in translation, because even I could tell Chelsea had been somewhat more descriptive than ‘fish-and-chips’.  Either he couldn’t remember the fine details of the dish, was too lazy to repeat it all, or his man-brain truly only heard ‘beef’ and ‘fish’ and potato’.

Giving him a suspicious look, I went over to a blackboard that appeared to have consumed an entire piece of chalk on the lengthy descriptions of the evening’s specials. It was chalk captioning that, with the help of good reading glasses, helped me figure out my meal.  When in doubt, read it.

On a recent trip to Florida, I introduced the Hearing Husband to some friends – wonderful movers and shakers from the Sarasota group of the Hearing Loss Association of America. We went for dinner at a fish house by the beach, and waited a long time to get the perfect table outside on the pier. The last glints of sunset and hanging lanterns provided just enough light for speechreading – infinitely preferable to the brightly lit but noisy interior that would have been like eating inside a large vacuum cleaner.

The poor server had barely opened his mouth to speak before our advocacy skills moved into high gear and that fellow got a crash course on how to wait on people with hearing loss. It took him three times longer than normal to describe the specials, because we all needed various things repeated, either by him or by each other. (“No, he didn’t say ‘yahoo’, he said ‘wahoo’. Really, that’s a fish.”) Although I can’t swear to this, I think the two hearing husbands had downed their first beer by the time the rest of us got the menu sorted out.Sarasota

For people with hearing loss, eating at restaurants ranks high on the list of challenging situations. Almost all restaurants serve up some background noise, and it’s a personal choice as to how much noise is acceptable. On the other hand, conversation can be just as strained in restaurants that are extremely quiet, because people use their soft-whisper voices, as if they were having lunch in a funeral parlor.

People with communication challenges immediately recognize well-trained staff. The best servers look you in the eye – even if there are 10 of you – when describing the daily specials. They ask if you have any questions, and won’t flinch when you say, “Yes, I do. Could you start again from the beginning?” When you tell them you have hearing loss, they know how to communicate – they raise their voice and maintain eye contact. They don’t say ‘no problem’ and then continue speaking in the same, ineffective way. And I’m also fond of servers who are new on the job, or struggling with those inventive menu descriptions. The longer they take, the better I like it.

“The, uh, chicken special has been…uh, cooked…and, oh, darn,” she says, pulling out her notebook, giving me time to digest that chicken is the main ingredient. I’ve never met a chicken I didn’t like, so I put us both out of our misery and order the poulet.

Background noise and low lighting are dangerous enough, but when a poorly trained server is added to the mix, it doesn’t bode well for diners with hearing loss. Food doesn’t taste as good if the restaurant environment forces me to work too hard to enjoy it.  Good food can turn into sawdust if you can’t understand what’s being said – bad food can be made palatable by laughter.

For the best possible dining experience:
– Small groups are better
– Make reservations, advising restaurants of your hearing loss and need for a quiet spot
– Advise both the person seating you and your server of your communication requirements.
– When all else fails, forget the specials and order from the menu.

If you find a good restaurant, recommend it to your friends. If they go, make sure they tell the restaurant, “We’re here because we heard this is a great place to eat and enjoy a conversation.”

  1. Loved this…I was in tears. Looking forward to the conference this year…finally going to attend this one…only my 2nd I am ashamed to say. Hopefully I will at least get a glimpse of you there ;).

    Warmest Regards,

  2. Love the blog!! We persevered…in spite of the less than perfect hearing conditions! Wine, great food, warm weather (no snow!!) and surrounded by great friends. Nothing better! Perfect evening and it was such a pleasure to meet “the hearing husband”!! See you in Austin! j

  3. Don’t know what I would do without your column. It makes me laugh til I cry. Thanks again Gael.

  4. Where & when in Austin?
    Tell me all about it.
    Kick the waiter so that his foot hurts and he has to sit down and you can hear him so much better when he is at eye level. Try it; it really works.

  5. The recent discovery of STEM CELLS—do you think they will be directly beneficial to us hard of hearing with sensorineural hearing losses?

  6. I tried to develop an Assisted Hearing device that would sit in the middle of a restaurant table and pick up all the talk, background noise free, and relay it to hearing aids with telecoils. I haven’t cracked it yet; it needs too many microphones at present, but I don’t believe it’s impossible. Of course, there is already a solution using wireless microphones that each person wears, but it is not low-cost.

  7. When we go out to dine, we leave hearing advocacy behind just this once and focus on enjoying ourselves. I disagree about “warning” the restaurant ahead to let them know a bunch of people with hearing loss will be coming to dine. That is sure to make the staff nervous and act unnaturally. Both my husband and I are deaf and we’ve been to hundreds of restaurants all over the world and never felt the need for special treatment.

    1. It’s not so much about warning the restaurant, but asking for a table in the quietest part. I also don’t want special treatment – just to be able to understand what’s being offered. Asking for accommodation shouldn’t make staff nervous, if it’s asked with the same respect that we expect from them.


  9. Try communicating using a Tablet and passing the corrected information to all the guests—-It really works!

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