employment

Doing My Best

By India Mattia

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My hearing loss appeared suddenly, at age 61, when I woke up for work unable to hear in my right ear. With no history of difficulty hearing, I was completely stunned. Did I, I wondered, damage my ear with loud music in my headset yesterday?

In a panic, I requested an immediate appointment with my primary care doctor. He prescribed antibiotics and recommended I see an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT, or otolaryngologist) if my hearing did not return.

The antibiotics did not help my hearing, and upon the visit to the ENT I learned I had become completely deaf in my right ear and had developed a small hearing loss in my left ear. She suggested injecting steroids into my right ear to restore my hearing. I was apprehensive about having a needle stuck in my ear, but the doctor assured me that the novocaine would numb any pain. I agreed, and the procedure made me feel dizzy.  

One week and two injections later, my hearing had not come back. The ENT could not identify the cause with certainty. She thought it might be an infection. But I couldn’t think of ways I would have gotten infected, and to me I didn’t see any obvious signs of an infection.

Soon my hearing loss was accompanied by vertigo, tinnitus, and ear pain. Every time I moved a certain way, I felt my head spin. I relied on the keep the radio to block out my tinnitus and took Tylenol to dull the pain. My ENT referred me to a specialist at John Hopkins Hospital, but the first appointment I could secure was two months away, in August.

Meanwhile, I began to adapt to the challenges of hearing loss in my daily life. No longer able to hear my alarm clock to wake up for work, I switched to a vibrating pillow alarm. I watched TV with Bluetooth headphones to avoid disturbing my family with the high volume I needed to hear. I couldn’t manage noisy spaces, though. Restaurants, outdoor events, and loud traffic were unbearable to me.

I began to feel embarrassed and ashamed of having to ask people to speak louder or repeat themselves. I was afraid to tell my coworkers at the real estate office where we worked, but confided in my supervisor, who was sympathetic. Outside of work, my husband often advocated for me by telling others about my hearing loss.

When I thought circumstances couldn’t get worse, I learned my office was to close in July, leaving me without a job. I hoped to make ends meet with the severance pay and unemployment compensation while looking for work.

The John Hopkins doctor confirmed an infection had caused permanent sensorineural hearing loss in my right ear. He recommended a hearing aid, but I cannot afford one.

I remain without a job and my unemployment compensation has ended. I have had a few job interviews—but have kept my hearing loss a secret—and have done my best understand the interviewers’ spoken questions. Aside from my hearing loss, age discrimination makes job hunting difficult. I don’t qualify for social security disability benefits because my hearing loss is only in one ear.

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All this said, my hearing loss has led me to make some positive lifestyle changes. I read more often than before and have swapped rock and roll for soft music. I’ve reduced my sodium intake and eliminated caffeine which is supposed to improve blood flow to the ear. I ride an exercise bike and have taken up t’ai chi to stay physically active.

I applied for early social security retirement since I will be 62 in June. I am also applying for social security disability for both my hearing loss and asthma, which I have had since my late 20s. I am hopeful something will come through. My story may not have an inspiring ending, but I’m doing my best and looking toward better days.

India Mattia lives in Maryland.

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How My Hearing Loss Makes Me Better at My Job

By Sarah Bricker

My hearing loss journey led me to a position as a communications specialist at Starkey Hearing Technologies, the Minnesota-based hearing aids manufacturer. Managing a hearing loss at work has meant that I sometimes have trouble hearing speech in noisy conference rooms, and that I may miss various sound cues during international phone calls. Yet as I navigate these challenges in the office, I can also see that having a hearing loss has actually helped me to become a better employee.

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I am comfortable asking for help. There’s a misconception that asking for help means you’re incapable of doing your job or it will make your boss or colleagues think less of you. But I see asking for assistance as showing an interest in learning and growth and a desire to recognize weaknesses and overcome them.

“Hard work” is my middle name. Having a disability often means I have to work a little harder than those with full abilities. I may have to try harder to hear in staff meetings, when talking to clients on the phone, or when attending a seminar in a large auditorium—but I also focus and do due diligence before and after meetings and calls to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Even with my hearing aids, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

I find creative solutions. Because my hearing loss can sometimes prevent me from doing something the usual way, I am always looking for an innovative approach. I believe this is a life skill that will enable me to take on challenging projects at the office and figure out solutions others may not have considered.

I am more accurate in my work.
I know I may miss parts of conversations and other sound signals, but being aware of this has set me up to be extremely detail-oriented otherwise. I am hyper-aware of all the minutiae and will carefully analyze each element of an assignment before I consider a project finished.

I work well alone and with a team! Having a hearing loss means I’ve learned the skills necessary to be self- sufficient and to succeed on my own. By the same token, my hearing loss has also given me an underlying “Go Team!” attitude from years of asking for help. I know I can rely on my team, whether it’s to fully follow a group discussion or to make sure I get all the notes I need in a conference hall.

I am patient. Hearing loss means I may have to listen to the same phrase three times before understanding it, but that’s okay. I’ve learned that getting it right is more important than getting it right now. That outlook is extremely beneficial when it comes to long-term projects and client relationships, not to mention everyday interactions with colleagues, friends, and family.

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Texas native Sarah Bricker holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and is a communications specialist at Starkey Hearing Technologies in Minnesota. She has a profound progressive sensorineural hearing loss that was diagnosed at age 13. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Hearing Health magazine.

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Redefined Justice

By Casey Dandrea

Bob Downs was 18 years old when he received his first hearing loss diagnosis. Heading home from school one afternoon, he wandered curiously into an audiology clinic offering free hearing tests and agreed to take one. The audiologist informed him he had a substantial hearing loss and would benefit from hearing aids sold by the clinic. Skeptical and not willing to purchase hearing aids, Bob declined the treatment.

More than a decade later, Bob was driving his five-year-old son, Timmy, home from school when he discovered his distress coming from the back seat. Timmy was crying because his throat was in pain from him screaming at his father. “He was desperately trying to get me to hear him talk about his day at school, but I couldn’t hear him,” Bob said.

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Being unable to hear Tim encouraged Bob to take his hearing health more seriously and get another test. The new test results showed a hearing chart like the one presented to him as a teenager in the audiology clinic, but a lot worse. Bob has now been wearing hearing aids for 18 years.

Professionally, Bob’s hearing loss created some unexpected challenges. Shortly after he purchased his first pair of hearing aids, Bob worked in the call center of a large medical organization. His hearing loss combined with office background noise made it difficult for him to use the phone to schedule patient appointments, even with a telecoil feature for his hearing aids. The hectic environment of a medical office also made it challenging for Bob to communicate with colleagues and patients face-to-face. It was here that Bob first became highly aware of his professional limitations caused by hearing loss.

Bob was disappointed when his employer failed to provide proper workplace accommodations for his hearing loss. He brought the issue to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the federal agency enforces civil rights laws for employees with disabilities—but never received justice from his former employer. His former employer actually denied Bob’s hearing loss, leaving him disheartened and deeply offended.

Discouraged by this legal outcome and required to tend to an urgent family emergency, Bob resigned from his call center position at the medical clinic to return to clerical work, a previous and familiar area of expertise. Bob faced similar obstacles in this line of work, too, and felt as if he were no longer able to contribute to the support of his family. “I was constantly paranoid about failing to hear my boss or a doctor or a technician calling after me from behind and would not be able to see that they were talking to me,” Bob recalls.

Bob realized a new profession—one involving less listening—may benefit him. He returned to college and earned his Associates Degree in 2013, where he is currently working toward his Bachelor’s degree in User Experience (UX) Design, which involves coding to improve people’s interactions with technology.  

Bob’s focus in UX Design is the Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA), an interface that defines a way to make web content and web applications more accessible to people with disabilities. The typical functionality used in websites is not available to those who rely on screen reading or cannot use a computer mouse. Bob wishes to expand the usage of the required technical code specifications, making more web applications accessible to people with disabilities.

Although Bob was once reluctant to accept his hearing loss diagnosis, he’s proud to understand and advocate for the benefits of hearing loss treatment today. He urges other folks not to ignore their difficulties hearing or, worse, an audiogram showing a profound hearing loss, as he did at 18.  

Bob’s ability to remain persistent through discrimination and career changes is also commendable. Though Bob was unable to receive justice for the inequality he personally faced in his former workplace, he’s now creating his own form of justice for disability access through his newfound career.

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