I have done some dumb things in my life, but one of the most absolutely ridiculous, un-self-aware things that I have EVER done, was to take a job as front desk receptionist for a professional association of chartered accountants. I mean, with my severe hearing loss, how did I honestly expect to successfully work a switchboard?! My only excuse was that I had just arrived in a new city on the other side of the country, and I needed a job, any job, to help me get my feet on the ground. With my reasonably good speech discrimination, I figured I could do it because I’d muddled through previous jobs, using the phone on my better, un-aided ear.
But this was the early 1980’s and few, if any, telephones had amplification at the time. I don’t think the job lasted more than six weeks. The employer called me in to his office and asked me to say, out loud, the organization’s name. Puzzled, I did as he asked. “OK, I see the problem”, he said. The ‘problem’ was that the company title contained several “s” sounds, and according to a senior partner who called in daily, I was viciously mangling, slurring and lisping all of them.
After discussing my hearing loss – which I had not previously identified as an issue to my employer – I was offered another position in the firm, one where presumably I wouldn’t be able to offend the partners. I grabbed my pay and ran out the door; the work was not only ill-suited for me, but boring to boot.
It was the last time I ever tried to hide my hearing loss on the job. The stress of trying to ‘hear’ well enough, or hide my hearing loss, was far worse than not getting a job because of it. And honestly, I don’t believe I have ever lost out on an opportunity because I was hard of hearing, although sadly I know it still happens, regularly, to many people with hearing loss.
One of my fundamental beliefs of living successfully with hearing loss is that I must be honest about it – not only to myself, but with others. How can we expect accommodation in the workplace, or anywhere, if we don’t communicate our needs, along with possible strategies that have worked well for us in the past?
On the job, many barriers and pitfalls make effective communication a hazy hallucination. You can’t make out the name of the client on the phone. The boss yells out instructions as he’s walking away. Meetings with more than two people are difficult – with more than 10 they are nightmares. PA announcements are unintelligible. The office is a mass of cubicles, poor sight-lines and constant noise, creating a roar in your hearing aids.
‘Hearing’ people who have not been sensitized to these problems are simply not able to anticipate, let alone appreciate, their impact on workplace interaction and job performance. The barriers are often invisible to people for whom communication is free-flowing, a physiological act of living as fundamental and as un-noticed as breathing or eye-blinking. And even when hearing managers or colleagues are made aware of the issues, it can take time to develop the habit of good communication. It’s one thing to be trained on accessible communication, and quite another to get it to ‘stick’. There’s no sure-fire trick to this; if there were, the world would be a very different place.
Some workplace barriers are easier to navigate than others. Some solutions are technical; others involve old-fashioned, hard of hearing common sense. In the first hour of the first day of my first high-school job in a dry cleaning store, I experienced my first work-related communication barrier. When writing down a customer’s name and phone number on the ticket, I couldn’t read their lips, so I learned to write, although badly, without looking at the paper. People tend to watch what you’re writing down their personal information – excuse me, my last name is Carp, you got the ‘r’ and the ‘a’ mixed up – and most were unaware of my innovative strategy. But when a client did look up during the process, they were startled to find me staring intently at their face. The occasional customer was visibly creeped-out to catch me eyeballing them, as my hand kept moving on the counter. Sometimes I explained, usually I didn’t. I was 16 and my assertiveness skills were still developing.
After high school, I worked in a busy hospital clinic where I learned about the fine art of hangin’ on by the fingernails. Although I finally had my first hearing aid, it wasn’t in the ear that I used for the telephone. I would get numbers and names wrong, because after saying ‘pardon?’ a couple of times, I would just give it my best guess. Bluffing is not a good communication strategy, especially in a chaotic clinical setting. Patients would show up ‘unexpectedly’ and doctors would return phone calls to a wrong number. (OK, so shoot me – numbers are tough to discriminate on the phone, especially with hospital background noise!) I didn’t like that job either.
But with each subsequent job, I became better at self-identifying as hard of hearing. And the better I articulated my needs, the more I enjoyed my work. Technology finally caught up with me and by the 1990’s, amplification and computer text communication were standard. By this time, I had become happily self-employed.
Now, looking back on those early years, I realize how much I struggled to communicate well on the job. I had to swallow daily hurts, frustrations and embarrassments that occurred with hearing-related incidents. At that time, there were no role models and certainly no blogs or online forums to provide information or support for people like me, the hard-of-hearing-working being.
There are a lot of us now, and we’ve come a long way, people. But in terms of workplace understanding and accommodation, we’ve still got a ways to go….