The Truth About Hearing Loss And The Workplace

Well, it’s complicated.  In the last decade I was fortunate enough to work in an environment that was welcoming and inclusive.  I taught college-level English classes and was lucky enough to be surrounded by understanding people.  But it hasn’t always been that way.  Ask anyone with a hearing loss and they will tell you there are struggles. As our hearing loss accelerates more and more, frustrations on both sides tends to heighten unless there is an understanding of how we sometimes function differently than the masses.

There are struggles to assert we are capable and worthy of employment.  Struggles to assert we are committed to excellence.  Struggles that dictate we have to jump through hoops and go the extra mile to prove we are equal.  Struggles to understand why some people don’t understand diversity and find differences annoying or even subject matter for jokes.

Some of those struggles are because of mindsets created long ago about persons with hearing loss.  Some of those struggles are because those who have varying levels of deafness do not advocate enough for themselves.  Sometimes the offenders are those who are educated, in an authoritative role or even in do-good roles that require an understanding and compassion for the human condition.  Textbooks can teach theory, but practice is the true litmus test.

We as persons with hearing loss must teach our employers what our special needs are.  Often, we do not.  This is because we are often afraid if we ask for special accommodations, even as simple as written instructions or facing us when someone speaks, we will be perceived as a even more deaf and struggling to do our job.  The biggest mistake we make,and we all do it, is bluff.  We pretend we heard a directive when we may have heard only part of it or none of it.  We are often too humiliated to ask again and again what was said.

Now here’s the thing…even though The Americans with Disabilities was signed in 1990, there are still things that happen in the workplace that violate the rights of those with hearing loss.  Like any other “ism,” there will always be people in our society that use their power in unfair and negative ways.  When a person with hearing loss complains of mistreatment, what happens?

In her essay entitled “The Ways We Lie,” Stephanie Ericsson explains there are many ways we lie from little white lies to lies that are damaging and destructive.  Here are some of the ways this essay can be applied to the deceit that sometimes takes place in the workplace regarding those with hearing loss.

“IGNORING THE PLAIN FACTS

“In the ’60s, the Catholic Church in Massachusetts began hearing complaints that Father James Porter was sexually molesting children.  Rather than relieving him of his duties, the ecclesiastical authorities simply moved him from one parish to another between 1960 and 1967, actually providing him with a fresh supply of unsuspecting families and innocent children to abuse….” (Ericsson)

How does this apply to the workplace?  There are complaints filed in companies that have “open door” policies any day of the year.  How often does the company admit to wrongdoing?  Whether it’s disability, racism, sexism, homophobia or any other prejudice, companies are just not going to risk admitting to wrongdoing and have a suit on their hands.

“DEFLECTING

When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff. –Cicero.

Some of the most skilled deflectors are passive-aggressive people who, when accused of inappropriate behavior, refuse to respond to the accusations.  This you-don’t-exist stance infuriates the accuser, who understandably, screams something obscene out of frustration.  The trap is sprung and the act of deflection successful, because now the passive-agressive person can indignantly say, “who can talk to someone as unreasonable as you?”  The real issue is forgotten and the sins of the original victim become the focus.  Feeling guilty of name-calling, the victim is fully tamed and crawls into a hole, ashamed. I have watched this fighting technique work thousands of times in disputes between men and women, and what I’ve learned is that the real culprit is not necessarily the one who swears the loudest.” (Ericsson)

I know a few people who have actually been so exasperated they threw the F-bomb at the offending employer after being continually verbally abused.  Who could blame them?

“STEREOTYPES AND CLICHES

Where opinion does not exist, the status quo becomes stereotyped and  all originality is discouraged. –Bertrand Russell

…They take a single tree and make it a landscape.  They destroy curiosity.  They close minds and separate people.  …Fat people, ugly people, beautiful people, old people, large-breasted women, short men, the mentally ill, and the homeless all could tell you how much more they are like us than we want to think…” (Ericsson)

I remember once many years ago and before I was profoundly deaf, someone asked for directions to my office. He was told to go upstairs, get off the elevator on the second floor and speak to the woman with the hearing aid.  That was a revelation for me because it never occurred to me that someone would define me by my hearing loss.  But what does someone see when they see us? Do they draw a picture in their mind of who we are before they know us?

“DISMISSAL

Dismissal is perhaps the slipperiest of all lies.  Dismissing feelings, perceptions, or even the raw facts of a situation ranks as a kind of lie that can do as much damage to a person as any other kind of lie.” (Ericsson)

When an employer is dismissive of a complaint someone makes in the workplace they are being deemed irrelevant, invisible and it only affirms to the offended party that they are marginalized in our society without a right to a voice.

So what’s the answer here?  Do we speak up or keep our mouth shut if we are not being treated fairly or if we are experiencing abuse?  There is no easy answer.  But here are some of my personal thoughts.  

Once, many years ago when I first started losing my hearing, I was walking into the cafeteria for a coffee break and I overheard a co-worker say to a group of women including my boss, “How does she know when her phone rings if she can’t hear?” She thought it was hilarious, but it was my first real experience seeing how mean-spirited some people can be.

Years later, I was involved in event planning.  I noticed my boss didn’t fill me in on the planning of some upcoming events, and I asked her why.  Her response was, “Because you can’t hear and I would have to shout, and then I would get laryngitis.”  I had worked there for five years, long hours skipping lunch and gone for two years without a sick day, –worked events at the Waldorf-Astoria and The Plaza hotel for as many as 1,200 people including well-known celebrities, and I did it well.  I was so hurt by her bluntness that day I walked out feeling so humiliated I didn’t know if I ever wanted to come back.  What hurt most was this was an acknowledgement of my progressive hearing loss and how it was affecting me in the workplace.  Two days later I came in and had a long talk with her.  She not only apologized, but she made an effort to try to understand the dynamics of hearing loss.  That was 30 years ago, and we stayed friends until she died recently.

I haven’t always been an advocate for myself.  Honestly, it’s sometimes a no-win situation as many will tell you.  It’s very difficult to be an advocate and not get emotional about the struggles we face every day.  Organizations such as Hearing Loss Association of America helps  members  deal with hearing loss in the workplace through their meetings, convention seminars and written materials. (www.hearingloss.org)

Also, books such as Living Better with Hearing Loss, A Guide To Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends…and Hearing Aids by Katherine Bouton are helpful. Katherine Bouton also has a blog hearingbetterwithhearingloss.wordpress.com.

mw

 

Invisible Woman: A page in the diary of a late-deafened woman

 

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Many years ago, when I was a student at The College of New Rochelle’s School of New Resources, I had the opportunity to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  The book deals with issues such as race, society and identity.  I was deeply moved while reading the book, and it made me think about how the issues described in the book could be applied to persons with disabilities or any other group struggling for their right to dignity.  That, along with an experience described in the next paragraph inspired me to write the poem Invisible Woman.

 

One day while paying for groceries, there was a woman ahead of me in line with her husband.  She appeared to be afflicted by some type of palsy, and after checking out, she had a seizure.  Her husband did his best to comfort her and escort her out of the store, but the clerk snapped, “People like that should be kept at home.”  I was mortified to think anyone would think they have the right to determine if another individual is a valid member of society, and if their presence should be allowed.

That sparked me to write this poem based on my own observations as a late-deafened woman and the sometimes insensitive treatment of persons with disabilities:

Invisible Woman

Your eyes shift downward, or you look away,

I understand your predicament, you don’t know what to say.

You say it’s scary,…to think it could happen to you.

And if it did, you wouldn’t know what to do.

It’s okay, –glance at the evidence of my deficiency, when I look away.

It’s part of the experience, a natural part of my day.

On no! It’s not catchy! You can shake my hand.

I’m just like anyone you’ve met, across our great land.

We’re really more alike,than you can perceive.

I pray there’s a God.  I for one still believe.

If I ask you a question, you reply to my spouse,

What’s someone like me,doing out of the house?

I don’t mean to frighten, but yes, it could happen to you.

And if it did, do you know what you would do?

You would still marvel at sunsets,and bathe in dewy rain.

You would develop compassion,and learn to sustain

the unexpected changes that would come your way,

–to appreciate life, day after day.

And you know what else might be of interest to all?

We laugh and we love. We learn to stand tall.

We realize life is full, even after the fall.

Because you don’t see me,doesn’t mean I don’t exist.

The more that you think this, the more that I will persist,

to marvel at sunsets, and bathe in dewy rain,

and develop compassion and learn to sustain

To visit the orcas at Stellwagon Bay,

to blow out birthday candles, –what a thrill, I’m just that way.

To visit covered bridges and lighthouses too,

and yes, there’s still a curious child in me who loves the zoo!

But one more thing, before you walk away.

Did you know Milton was blinded with pen in hand?

His work was pure genius, beyond what many can understand.

And Beethoven’s world was silent when he wrote his best songs.

FDR led the country in a wheelchair for three terms,

no one’s ever been president that long.

And Edison deaf, yes you heard right.

Over 1,000 inventions! God that man was bright.

The irony of this verse is simple as can be.

The next time you see me, please, please just see ME.

 

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 1999.  All Rights Reserved.