Hearing Loss in the Workplace
Editor: The ALDACON 2000 workshop entitled “Hearing Loss in the Workplace” was well attended and well received. Moderated by Larry Littleton, the panel consisted of three working women who bring a diversity of perspectives to the issues of employment for people with hearing loss. The format of the workshop was questions from the moderator or the audience and an opportunity to respond from each of the participants.
The names used in this article are not the participants’ actual names, but the following job descriptions are accurate. Debbie works in accounting at a public school district. Mary is an assistant principal in a metropolitan school district. Susan is a publications manager for a division of a large defense company.
Question: How do you address your hearing loss in the process of applying for a job?
Debbie: I’ve had recent interview opportunities, and I’ve been very open about my hearing loss. I include it in my cover letter, and provide a TTY phone number. I also talk about my involvement in hearing loss organizations, because I want potential employers to understand that I’m working to promote opportunities for people with hearing loss. I remained stuck in a previous job for many years, because I thought that I wouldn’t be able to get another job.
Mary: I debated what to do at the beginning of the interview. Should I tell people that I have a hearing loss, or should I try to get through the interview without telling them and risk answering questions that weren’t asked. I decided to tell the panel at the beginning of the interview.
I recently had another interview. I requested an interpreter, but there was none there. The interview panel consisted of six people, all of whom said they were able to sign. Of course, saying you can sign and being able to sign are two different things. I considered postponing the interview until an interpreter was available, but I went ahead. I asked for repeats as required.
Susan: At my interview, people didn’t know that I was hard of hearing. I normally try to get through situations like this, and only explain about my hearing loss if I need to ask for repetition. I don’t want an interview to focus on my hearing loss, but rather on what I can do for them. Consider the situation from the prospective employer’s point of view. If they have several qualified candidates, why would they choose you over the others? You have to give them a reason to hire you.
Question: How do you address your hearing loss when you can’t use the phone? How do you ask for accommodations? How do you handle your co-workers?
Debbie: I have no problem asking for the physical accommodations. An organization in my area recently had a workshop on the issue of people with hearing loss and their co-workers. Several of my co-workers and I attended. They are now much more sensitive to my situation and work to be sure I’m included.
I recently got a new boss, whom I can’t lipread. My boss also doesn’t think that I need any accommodations, and I just had a long battle to get communications access. I originally tried to take on the whole district at once, but I had better luck approaching people one at a time and explaining that lack of communication was affecting my work. I recently got some of the accommodation I requested.
Mary: I’m fairly new to hearing loss. I’ve always advocated for students as part of my job, but I had a hard time advocating for myself. I know the laws are on our side, but we’re often cautious about getting into these battles. Our Section 504 (Ed: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 forbids discrimination because of disability in any organization that receives money from the Federal government) coordinator did nothing for me. But my boss was very supportive and I got the accommodations I need. It was still a traumatic experience, and I really relied on the support of my family and the hearing loss organizations during that time.
When I first started losing my hearing, I told my co-workers what was happening and explained how to communicate with me. When my hearing got worse and I started using an interpreter, I failed to explain how to work with an interpreter. But at the beginning of this year, I gave a one hour workshop in how to do that, and it’s been working very well.
I had a situation recently that I’d like to comment on. We had a very sensitive situation that my boss wanted to discuss with me, and he asked me leave the interpreter outside during that discussion. I understand the sensitivity of the issue, but it’s important that I am the one who decides when an interpreter is present; that decision should not be made by my boss.
Susan: I don’t ask for accommodations. I can’t imagine how that would work. I have busy and crazy workdays. When my hearing takes another drop, I will need to decide if I can stay in this position, and if so, what kinds of accommodations I may need. My biggest problem right now is the phone. I just don’t answer it. People leave voice mail, and I can listen to it several times to figure out what they’re saying, or I can have someone else listen and tell me.
I’m trying to train my co-workers. I’m the only person with hearing loss at my company; I’ve approached Human Resources about a workshop for my co-workers.
Sometimes my hearing aids ring as I walk down the hall. Some people tell me, and others say nothing. I wanted to let people know about my hearing loss, so I sent an email to the entire company. I explained what the noise was and thanked the folks who tell me when they hear it. I also thanked the people who make the effort to face me when they talk to me. I hovered over that email for several minutes before I finally pushed the “send” button. I was concerned about the repercussions.
That was a breakthrough for me. Now I’m more able to ask for help when I need it – during a teleconference, for example. I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished.
Question: Does it sometimes feel like life is a circus, and you have too much stress? How do you deal with stress?
Debbie: I write in my journal every morning. It’s like written meditation, and it also gives me the opportunity to plan my day. I’ve had lots of stress over the past three months. I’ve been working with a counselor, and that has really helped me understand what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. What I really need to do is demonstrate how appropriate accommodations will help everyone. It’s not just about me or my hearing loss; it’s about communication in an organization.
Mary: I’m stressed all the time, and I don’t have anything eloquent to say about it. I can’t show my emotions at work. Even with all the training we’ve done, people still do things that block communications. Sometimes I get snappy at work. I’m in counseling, and I hope that helps me find a way to deal with my emotions; I’m really overwhelmed, and I don’t have any great answers.
Susan: There’s something in me that really thrives on stress. There is good stress and bad stress, and I think I deal with it pretty well. My job gives me the good stress that I need.
Sometimes I’ll have a “hearing moment” [ed: an embarrassing moment caused by not hearing something correctly]. I used to want to just crawl into a hole when that happened. Now I’m learning to find the humor in these situations, and that helps a lot.
I also try to do yoga regularly and walk at lunch.
Question: What pearls of wisdom do you have for the audience?
Debbie: When you decided to ask for accommodations, be prepared to fight if necessary. During my recent battle, I knew that if I didn’t follow through, I could never again ask for accommodations.
Mary: I don’t really have a pearl to offer. People expect me not to be as good as I was before my hearing loss. I find that it’s harder to do things now. I’m the same person; I just can’t hear. It’s my responsibility to teach people how to work with me.
Find your inner strength. You never know what you can do until the situation arises.
Susan: Don’t let other people’s expectations control your life; do what you want to do. Some people call me an over-achiever. I think, even now, I could start in an entry-level job and work my way up.
Find a culture where you’ll be comfortable and show them what you can do. Volunteer for things; make that your advantage. Your hearing loss has helped you learn how to deal with people. You’re probably very good at setting the situation up to maximize your accomplishments.
Audience Question: People with hearing loss tend to do really good work, and I think employers sometimes take advantage of us. How do I ask for a raise?
Mary: People with normal hearing are afraid to ask for a raise, also; it’s no different. The worst that will happen is that your boss will say, “No”.
Susan: Don’t just ask for a raise. Go in with documentation that shows what you’ve done. If you can demonstrate that you deserve a raise, you’ll probably get it.
Audience: Another strategy is to put the monkey on the boss’ back. Ask him what you would have to do to get a raise.