The Hitchhiker’s Guide on How to Work With a Disability.By
Before we begin this article, I have to reveal something about myself. I suffered major hearing loss when I was 17, while playing in a water polo tournament. Immediately, I had to be rushed to Emergency Care where they determined that my ear drum had been destroyed in one ear, leaving it essentially useless.I was then classified as Hard of Hearing.
During orientation that fall at Syracuse University, I tried to settle into the routine of a college student, but I also had to begin to learn how to live my everyday life with extreme hearing loss. I had to adjust my body’s balance, which I still struggle with, and ear pain became part of my routine. I sat in the front of lectures, took ASL courses, learned the joy of subtitles, managed frustration and anxiety stemming from my hearing loss and worked on how to read lips.
But far and away, the hardest lesson I had to learn coming to terms with my hearing loss (and I’m still learning) is how to ask for help.
I’ve always been a very independent person, wanting to make things happen by my own hard work and no one else’s. Maybe it comes from being a twin, or coming from a family where independence is expected young. Regardless, pairing my need for independence with my shyness made me more likely to retreat and work on my own during elementary school. Asking for any kind of help has never been a strong forte of mine. Even before I became Hard of Hearing.
Once I graduated from Syracuse, most of my professional life has been built on making sure I can hear and understand the directions being given to me. One of the more important tasks included with working with a disability is making sure I encourage other members of the office to speak clearly in order to navigate my workday around my disability. Sometimes, it’s easy to work with no hearing, and other times it makes me want to punch a wall. But that feeling of frustration is not exclusively tied down to hearing loss. It’s easy to get irritated by not being able to do or understand at the same rate as everyone else, especially in a competitive workplace. Below is some things I learned at various times working with this disability, especially for those with disabilities in the workplace.
- Be Honest: There’s never a good time to tell people about hearing loss or other disabilities. I know there’s a lot of questions about when you actually disclose it at your job or school. Do you start off your introduction with it? Do you wait for the third conversation? Should you put it in your application? Should everyone know? I know a lot of these fears can dominate the application/training portion. My best advice is to be honest with your coworkers about what it is you need for optimal communication, and with that information you can work forward, setting a precedent for others in the office.
- Know your rights: As a person with a disability, you have the right to receive accommodations in order to help you work as efficiently as possible. You also have the right to disclose your disability at your comfort level during the hiring process. A lot of workers with disabilities don’t realize the different kinds of rights the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 gives them, and most employers know even less. Read up on them and ensure that your business is held accountable to providing all employees with disabilities the proper actions and accommodation. If not only for you, but for someone else with a disability who may join the company later in the game. Accomodations and how a company treats disabilities matter.
- Don’t be afraid to ask someone to repeat themselves: Make sure you understand what is being asked, be unafraid to ask for clarification for a project. It’s important that you are comfortable with the work and not afraid of missing parts of the instructions or having to guess.
I had a friend in high school who introduced herself to me and I did not clearly hear her name, so I did my best guess work and called her Mary for the next four years.
Her name was Claire. She never bothered to correct me and we both went with it. For four years.
I don’t think I can stress this enough:
Never be afraid to ask someone to repeat, lest you mistakenly call someone Mary for four years.
- Develop other ways of communication: It’s widely understood at my job that my expertise does not lie with the phone, and often I prefer doing emails or Skype conversations over phone because of my disability. It makes work so less frustrating when you can hear what’s going on. When I was a barista at Starbucks, my fellow partners and I came up with a system of hand signals for things we needed to say without having to shout. Even knowing the way to respond with ‘yes’ ‘no’ ‘what’ or ‘please repeat’ can help establish a system of communication.
And Peppercomm is such an amazing place to be; they’re so willing to work with me, whether it be communicating over email rather than phone, repeating themselves without judgement of what I couldn’t catch, or always facing me when speaking. They key of knowing that you have a good fit is the company’s ability to listen to what you need, and accommodate without belittling your needs.
This is what most workers with disabilities long for, to be considered an employee just like our coworkers without being considered a burden for those disabilities. It gives you a different way to view work, and how you view yourself as successful. My own hearing loss has given me a better sense of patience and gratitude for what I have accomplished, and a greater determination for what I want to achieve.
by Hannah Tibbetts