This has been quite a summer – lots of sun and Pity Party-ing with the three-headed monster of tinnitus, hyperacusis and breaking in new hearing aids.
But to add some perspective – it could always be worse. And it helps to remember that, whatever our issues, we’re always in the company of millions of people living and dealing with similar challenges.
I remember three women in particular.
A few years ago, as part of its diversity hiring initiatives, a large Toronto bank had hired several people with hearing loss to work as Customer Service Representatives (CSR) – the front line staff that I sometimes still mistakenly refer to as tellers. The bank asked me to deliver an information session on communicating with hearing loss for the management staff and the new CSRs.
As I prepared the workshop, I remember thinking, wow. This job would not be an easy gig for people with hearing loss: communicating with one person after another all day long, each offering a new speechreading challenge and in a noisy environment. But the bank was installing counter loops that would allow accessible interaction between the CSRs and their clients. The client speaks into the microphone and the CSR hears through the telecoils of her hearing aids. A win/win: the CSR would hear and the client would have exemplary service with direct eye contact.
The day before the workshop, the manager in charge of the bank’s Diversity initiative and I met with the three women to prepare them for the next day’s event. None of the three had ever been involved with other people with hearing loss, and we knew that the workshop discussion could be emotional for them.
Them?! The prep meeting was an eye-opening, gobsmacking, tear-inducing event for me! The women had ever told their stories before and once they started talking, a lifetime of hearing loss hurts spilled, eloquently, as if the words, in their proper order had been waiting to be unleashed, for years. These women, strangers to each other, listened to each story with nodding heads. In my memory vault, I can still see and hear them talking and I’m sharing the highlights of their stories (with names changed).
Nadja, 25 at the time, is from Bosnia and had severe to profound hearing loss from childhood. At that time, she and her family had lived in Canada for a few years and she spoke English well. “In the small town where I lived, there were no schools or services for children who were deaf. So my mother would take me across the border to get help and support. It was always difficult and scary to do this because of the dangerous political situation, but every week we would make the trip. I don’t know if hearing aids would have helped me, but we couldn’t afford them, anyway. Eventually, because of the war, my family left our country and came here to Canada. I worked hard to learn English; it was not easy to do with my hearing loss but I want to succeed. I’m excited at this job opportunity and for this meeting today.”
Karen, 45 at the time, had a moderate to severe hearing loss and wore two hearing aids. “I grew up with normal hearing. I married young and at age 22, gave birth to twins. I lost my hearing because of the difficult birth. Three months later, my husband left me – he couldn’t handle two babies and a deaf wife. I was devastated because I had couldn’t handle those things, either. Now I was deaf, deserted, exhausted and unable to communicate with my family, who had little patience with disabilities. I wasn’t prepared. Eventually some of my hearing came back, but it was an ongoing nightmare. I did get an education and worked with one company for many years, but it was a struggle to communicate on the job. That company folded so I need a new job. And I am still angry at my family.”
Angelica, 23 at the time, was from the Philippines. She had a severe loss. “I grew up in Manila in a very religious family. They prayed to God all the time for my deafness to be cured. I said, “God is not going to fix this. Hearing aids will!” But they kept praying for this to be taken away from me. Finally, I said, “I am going to Canada to join my sister. I’m going to earn money and buy myself some hearing aids. I am not going to live like this.” And so I left my family. Now I have hearing aids and I’m going to be a bank manager. I miss my family, but I could not stay. I would have lived in poverty and deafness all my life.”
The diversity manager and I listened in silence, holding back our emotion because they weren’t looking for tears, but for someone to listen.
The next day, about 20 people packed around a boardroom table. There was CART (communication access real time translation), amplification and FM for those of us who needed it. We talked about communication strategies. We talked about accommodation in the workplace. We told our stories. The bank staff asked many questions – what more can we do? Do we tell other staff members? What are the wrong things to say, what are the right things to say? Everyone was positive and I felt the women would get the support they needed.
All three women went to work at the bank. A year later, only Angelica was still working there and the bank considered her one of its rising stars. Nadja had left for another job; she was stunningly attractive and people would wait for “the deaf girl” to be free, and do their banking with her. She got tired of the unwanted attention. Karen found the job too frustrating, even with the counter loop, but she did volunteer with the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association for several years which helped her deal with her hearing loss.
Remembering these three women has put my summer of hearing loss discontent into proper perspective. I feel better, don’t you?
Photo courtesy of Ampetronic