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.”
“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.”