Deaf at the Dragon: Story of a Waitress with Hearing Loss
by Erin Geld
Editor: When we talk to people with hearing loss about employment, the most frequent comment we hear is that they don’t want a job that requires telephone work. It certainly makes sense to me. I don’t recall anyone ever saying that they didn’t want to be a wait person in a restaurant. I don’t believe people avoid mentioning that job because they think it would be easy, but rather because it’s so out of the question that they don’t even consider it!
Here’s Erin Geld’s narrative of her experiences as a wait person at the Green Dragon Café. And some surprisingly mature philosophy from a young adult. Erin is a junior at Cornell University.
Having stood at many a coffee shop counter, tapping my Cornell card irritably while watching baristas flail around for my caffeine fix, I have always known that Cornell food facilities were primarily intended to supply ready reinforcements to stressed, exhausted students. When waves of people come in between classes, employees must switch into high gear, moving the line as quickly as possible, dashing for the customer’s order the second it comes out of their mouths. Not the first workplace you would suggest for a hard-of-hearing person. A nice, quiet library circulation desk would be more appropriate. However, being the restless ants-in-your pants type, I really, really wasn’t interested in sitting and zapping books on an hourly basis.
I wanted something fun – so I applied for a job in the Green Dragon Café. Friends convinced me that my fears of mishearing orders from ill-tempered customers were exaggerated, and on the following Sunday, I found myself (slightly hung-over) at an introductory meeting with a handful of other newly hired Dragons. We signed up for shifts, learned where they kept the milk and were on our way.
I am now working the busy lunch periods, during which I rarely stop, between grabbing Snapples, chicken cesar wraps and wrestling with the espresso machine. I had little time to think about how much of a handicap my hearing loss was to my job. I did find myself employing strategies to make work easier – for instance, I preferred to station myself at the more-or-less central location of cash register, where it would be easier to communicate with the customers and co-workers.
Later, friends asked me how my venture at the Dragon was going – if the hearing thing was as difficult as I thought it would be. I mostly joked about the difficulty of understanding the unusual number of heavily-accented international architecture students, but also admitted that I did frequently experience annoyance when I had to ask a customer to repeat their requests a third or fourth time. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I always feel a sharp, familiar twinge of inadequacy.
It took me some time to realize that this inadequacy had little to with the embarrassment at the hearing loss itself. It was a little more complicated than that – it was how I expressed my hearing loss to those around me.
This summer, I worked in a non-profit organization, the League for the Hard of Hearing, in New York City. This was the institution that had diagnosed a profound-to-severe hearing loss and fitted me with my first hearing aids when I was two-and-half years old. Growing up, I had enough speech and comprehension therapy that I could be called “mainstreamed” and (other than my sister) I didn’t know any other deaf or hard-of-hearing people. I resisted being labeled as disabled – I was only hard of hearing and I did just fine, thankyouverymuch. Working at the League was an eye-opener. Here, my feelings on hearing loss couldn’t help but change.
On an assignment researching hearing loss happenings in Europe, I came across an exhibit in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum that featured designer hearing aids. For someone who has a creepy-looking tube coming out of her ear, followed by an ugly skin-colored widget, the design proposals on the website were stupefying. Some, with shimmering strands of silver, were made to look like elegant jewelry, while some were bold, funky statements in color and other hearing aids were chic, disposable (!) inserts for milder, everyday losses. The objective of the show was to challenge the stigma of hearing disability and make hearing-aid products as stylish, desirable and accessible as eyewear. Could it really be done? Did I buy it?
I don’t like wearing my hair in a high ponytail because you can see my hearing aids. I stopped wearing one in my nearly-deaf right ear when I was self-conscious mess of a 14-year-old. To this day, I haven’t put it back in and most people wrongly assume it’s a fully functioning ear. I never thought twice about playing down the role of my hearing aids, even though the impact of my hearing loss on my everyday life and personality is immeasurable. I try to hold out as long as I can before telling someone. It was always the natural thing to do. It’s a strange feeling when I eventually tell someone of my disability – it’s a little like admitting a bad secret.
What if I decided to break a lifelong tendency and actually started being vocal about my hearing loss? What if I started wearing a pretty, draping attachment to the hideous doohickey? What if I wore “I’m deaf!” written on a baseball cap?
It’s frightening, but I probably should. What the hell, I am disabled. Not totally disabled, but disabled. Being hard of hearing, without question, presents difficulties in my everyday life. If I wore that hat to work at the Green Dragon, people would probably speak louder and clearer and I would not have to go through the awkward motions of admitting a disability at every embarrassing mix-up incident.
Ultimately, it might even prompt some dialogue regarding disability and handicaps in everyday life that go beyond wheelchair ramps. Disability is a living, breathing thing that is rarely solved by a new gadget – technology can only do so much – it requires daily engagement and resolve. The worst discomforts in a disabled person’s day and life come from stagnant, resigned attitudes, for to believe that disability is a final condition is the greatest handicap of all.