Most employees don’t worry about the noise levels of a loud restaurant or busy street. But, add in a hearing problem, and it can make for a tough working environment.
Former car salesman Stan Kruggel, who received hearing aids shortly after going into the business, knows how tough.
“My hearing loss was progressively making it harder to talk to customers on the phone and in person, out in a noisy car lot or from the back seat in a test drive,” he said.
That’s one example of what people with hearing problems have to overcome in the workplace.
Another issue is stigma.
“There is often a culturally conditioned belief that someone who cannot hear as well as most people is not as smart,” said Sherry Whitfield.
“The phrase ‘deaf and dumb’ is still used today by people who don’t realize this is offensive and usually untrue,” she said.
Whitfield, a hearing-impaired business owner, is a Tucson board member for the Adult Loss of Hearing Association, known as ALOHA.
She serves as the group facilitator for ALOHA’s new networking and support group in Tucson for hearing-impaired individuals who are working, looking for work or starting a business.
The new group provides a platform for such individuals to share their concerns and their struggles regarding employment. It will have its first meeting Friday.
Another problem Kruggel faced was with co-workers not being able to relate to his hearing loss. “It is naturally understandable when people can’t see that you have a disability, as they can when they see a blind person or a physically disabled person in a wheelchair or on crutches,” he said.
trouble getting work
Finding work can be hard. Many employers would rather choose an employee without a disability, Whitfield said. They worry about what kind of expensive equipment they’ll need to buy to satisfy the Americans with Disabilities Act, which says reasonable accommodations must be made for the employee, as long as it is not an undue burden to the employer.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines reasonable accommodations as adjustments or modifications provided by an employer to enable people with disabilities to enjoy equal employment opportunities. A reasonable accommodation for a hearing-impaired person, for example, might be a sign- language interpreter during an interview or an amplified telephone.
However, an employer does not have to provide such accommodations if they impose an undue hardship, which is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of the employer’s size and financial resources.
Lena Steinbrenner, owner of Lena’s Custom Desserts in Tucson, said employers should look at the hearing-impaired person as an investment, rather than an expense or a burden.
“I believe that employers will miss out on a potentially quality person that meets the same qualifications as a person who has no hearing loss,” Steinbrenner said. “These employees should be given equal opportunities to receive training in other aspects of the workplace.”
It is ALOHA’s hope that with a little education and honest communication, many obstacles faced by the hearing-impaired can be overcome.
“I think that most employers just need to learn about what can be done to accommodate the employee,” Whitfield said. “Many times an employer will be open to working together to make it possible for a hearing-impaired person to get the job done, once they understand how easy it really is.”
Job coaches can help with that. They work with the hearing-impaired employee and his or her employer in the hiring process by helping them through each step — filling out applications, getting interpreters set up for interviews and helping out on the first day of work.
Pima County One Stop, a local agency that helps people find work, refers its hearing-impaired job seekers to the Community Outreach Program for the Deaf, or COPD, which offers a vocational placement program, for assistance.
Charles McBride is the vocational coordinator for COPD. He teaches his clients self-advocacy and helps them communicate their needs so an employer can accommodate them. He said the biggest barrier is managers having closed minds. “If they have open minds, it’s a smooth new- hire process, but it takes time and patience,” he said.
COPD works with employers as well as its clients. McBride recently placed a client at Sprouts, for example. “It’s an excellent company to work with,” he said.
McBride’s group also places students and young adults into jobs at Walgreens as part of its summer work program. On a recent visit to Walgreens, McBride was pleased to see one of the students working the cash register.
Another store that works with the hearing-impaired is Albertsons at Silverbell and Speedway. It has a partnership with the nearby Arizona Schools for the Deaf and the Blind to give students work experience.
Making the workplace friendlier for the hearing- impaired can be as simple as reducing workplace noise or purchasing inexpensive assisted-listening devices, such as amplified phones or caption phones.
In salesman Stan Kruggel’s case, his employer accommodated him with telephone amplifiers. And as his hearing got worse, he was moved into the Internet sales department at the car dealership. “My bosses were mostly understanding,” he said.
If communicating one-on-one with the hearing- impaired person is a problem, Whitfield said the most important thing to do is to face the person and look directly at them while speaking. This allows them to read lips and facial expressions. “A pen and paper or typed-out communications can be used to clarify almost anything,” she added.
Self-advocacy is important. To help hearing-impaired customer-service employees communicate, McBride urges them to carry a notepad with “How can I help you?” on it.
When it comes to running a business, focusing on strengths and finding workarounds when it comes to marketing and communications can help hearing-impaired entrepreneurs.
For example, Steinbrenner was born without ears and has to wear a headband bone-conduction hearing aid.
She has a passion for baking, and has been a professional baker for 23 years. She said she made it her responsibility to not allow the stereotypes and stigmas to play a role in who she is.
Steinbrenner opened her own bakery in February, at 2418 N. Craycroft Road.
“It’s a matter of letting people know about me and that the disability is not who I am,” she said.
ALOHA’s Whitfield started losing her hearing in 1999, due to a traumatic brain injury when she was a young child. She runs her own business selling natural and carved crystals on ebay and at shows including the Tucson gem show.
The main problem Whitfield faces in running her business is understanding speech, especially on the telephone. As a workaround, she handles a lot of her business via email and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But she said she does pretty well face-to-face.
“I focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do,” she said.