Working and Volunteering with Hearing Loss

I was still working when I first recognized that I needed a hearing aid due to my hearing loss. At the time, roughly thirty-five percent of my hearing was gone. I made an appointment with an ENT physician to ensure there were no medical problems affecting my hearing. He recommended I see an audiologist and, after a comprehensive hearing exam, I purchased a pair of analog Phonak hearing aids, the top-of-the-line technology of the day. These hearing aids were not digital or custom made. In the early 1980s that sort of hearing equipment for those dealing with hearing loss was unavailable. iPhones, Bluetooth and assistive listening devices were the instruments of science fiction movies.

Even with hearing aids, I was concerned about my working status. As a manager in a hospital, I was responsible for my employees, day-to-day operations, and the finances of my departments. I was reluctant to tell anyone about my hearing problems, fearing such an admission would make me look weak or disabled. I did mention my hearing issues to my superiors. They were kind enough to give me what I needed: a phone with a volume control, the only assistive device available.

As years passed and my hearing diminished, functioning in the workplace became more and more difficult. Better technology came along. Most of my employers invested in helping me with my hearing loss, giving me the assistive devices of the day so that I could be successful at work. Still, there were frustrating meetings, times when I didn’t seem to hear anything, and phone conversations with women that amounted to a request for a face-to-face meeting as their words flew by me, sounding more windswept then real.

In spite of it all, I was never asked to step down into a position where I was underemployed. Most of my working life was before the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, which came into being in 1990. Prior to that, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act covered all working people with disabilities including those with hearing loss. My employers took the EEOA seriously.

In her marvelous book Shouting Won’t Help, Katherine Bouton, describes her hearing workplace experiences, how she was misunderstood and told she was not a team player. She ended up leaving her position as a Senior Editor for the New York Times largely because of her hearing loss.

I, too, left the working world because of my hearing loss. It was getting too hard to get through a working day. I found myself exhausted after working eight or nine hours. I could hardly function, largely because of the extra effort needed to hear my colleagues. Though hearing aids had advanced significantly by then, they were still not the high-powered, Bluetooth capable instruments that we have today.

In 2003, the last year I worked, I had just turned fifty. As a young retired person, I decided to write. I obtained my Masters in Fine Arts and Creative Writing. I was concerned about going back to school as an older person with hearing loss, but the administrator of the program went out of her way to make sure I was successful. I was provided with CART (Communication Access Real Time Translation). A court reporter followed me to classes. I sat next to her, reading my professor’s lectures as she typed them, word for word. It was a huge advantage. I had instant and accurate notes and sailed through my MFA program without issues.

Now I spend my days writing, reading, and doing volunteer work. Because I have a great deal of experience in healthcare and a master’s degree in Business Administration, I am on the board of directors of a local clinic which provides healthcare services for the working poor in our community. Meetings are not always easy, but with my assistive devices, and the patience of my fellow board members, I am now at the end of my three-year term as an active and participating board member.

It is never easy to work or volunteer with hearing loss. It is imperative that we are honest with ourselves about our capabilities and needs, and that we tell those who manage and mentor us what we need to function. I always found that when you try, and when your skills are needed and wanted, people will go out of their way to help you.

There will always be people who lose patience, who after discovering your hearing loss will step away from you as if you have a communicable disease. I have had these experiences, mostly in social rather than in business settings. When meeting such people, I simply write them off as souls I don’t want to be around.

I encourage anyone with hearing loss to continue working or to volunteer.  Staying engaged in life, in a rewarding way, contributes to hearing and mental wellbeing. There are business and charitable organizations, like the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), who want and need your skills and your enthusiasm. And you might be amazed at the people willing to stand by you to support your hearing needs