That’s the number of people with disabilities working in the US, compared to 68.2 percent without disabilities, according to United States Department of Labor’s September 2015 Disability Employment Statistics.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has laws that make discrimination on the basis of disability illegal, but my high school experience showed me the slippery ways people in power can bypass these laws.
In my first post-graduate job, a makeup salesperson at a major US department store, I received diversity training, which included many topics: language inclusivity; recognizing racial bias; respect of different religions. But what struck me was the topic of disability.
When I first entered the workforce, my parents encouraged me to hide my disability because I passed for able-bodied better than most people in my position. Any discrimination, they believed, would be brought by my openness, and they suspected it would be better for me to be quiet. Typically, I would have rejected this advice, telling my parents I would not be shackled by chains of ableism created by ignorant people, however, I was nervous about my post-collegiate future and felt adrift in the “real world” after almost 20 years of academia. I hated living at home and I wanted to earn money, but I was not sure if moving out and making a living would be possible if I was open about my hearing loss. Wanting to err on the side of caution, I nervously chose to go into hiding on my first day of work.
That day, I was assigned to work at a makeup counter with a woman named Sabina, who spoke with a Middle Eastern accent. Although I wanted to tell Sabina that I could not understand her and that I was hard of hearing, I was worried about her previous experiences with accented speech. Saying that I could not understand someone’s accent because of hearing loss in the past resulted in eye rolls, or comments about faking. To make matters worse, the marble floors and the large space made a terrible acoustic environment. Sabina’s speech, intermingled with conversations of passing customers, resulted in my efforts of trying to understand her feel like climbing a mountain.
But with the statistic about the number of people with hearing loss in the workforce weighing heavily on me, it felt more critical than ever to hide my hearing loss.
After morning, I could feel fatigue setting in, but I was not sure if it came from struggling to hear or keeping my loss secret. The exhaustion and anxiety caused me to make careless mistakes. I inadvertently overwhelmed a customer with knowledge about specific brushes, causing her to drop a sale with Sabina. When asked to ring up two of Sabina’s other customers, I put it under the wrong name because I misheard their requests, and had to quickly start over. At the day’s end, I forgot to ring up a customer’s item. Sabina accused me of stealing from her through my mistakes, and said I was too smart for everything to be accidental. Though I could not hear her words, I understood her tone and glances at me while talking to others, and I fell apart crying, scared that I would be fired, and a disappointment to my family and a shame to the disability community.
The next day, I was moved to a different counter and worked with Alisha, an Ethopian woman who also spoke with an accent. Not wanting to repeat the horrors or the day before, I discreetly told her that I was hard of hearing. Instead of being off-putt, she immediately made changes in her communications with me. She always made certain she talked in my direction and was incredibly patient when I asked her to repeat herself at least three times. Under Alisha’s guidance, I started getting a strong sales record and developed friendly rapport with the customers. Within two weeks, I had acquired a reputation at the store for being sunny, bubbly, and “having a voice like Julie Andrews.” Quickly yet inconspicuously, my coworkers began to find out that I was hard of hearing, and were incredibly accommodating. By week three, everybody with whom I had worked knew…except Sabina.
I was incredibly nervous when I had to work with her again, especially when I could see the sting of my first day still on her face. At that point, I had nothing to lose by telling her about my hearing loss. When she knew about how much I had struggled and tried to keep secret, her demeanor changed and became sympathetic.
At that point, I had nothing to lose by telling her about my hearing loss.
To my surprise, I found she had experience with disabilities of her own. Sabina’s family had emigrated because her son had a rare condition, and the only place that offered him treatment was the hospital that treated my ear infections. We frequently exchanged dialogue about life with disabilities, and how to best get opportunity in an able-bodied world. Sabina spoke a lot about her son’s gifts in academia and music, and I gave her a piano lesson book and names of music teachers at a local college. In exchange for helping me find a place in the workforce, I can only hope that what I gave to Sabina will help ease life for her and her son.
Though I have switched from working from makeup counters to the nonprofit sector, I will always remember what my experiences with Sabina taught me about disability and work. Revealing my loss gave me the assistance and relationships needed for a standout performance. In hiding my hearing loss, I was far more at risk of being fired than I was when I was open about my needs. Ableism may be alive and well in America’s workforce, but it does not have to impact my choice to reveal about my hearing loss. The possibility of further discrimination or being fired because of my hearing loss no longer scares me. Thanks to Sabina, I have seen the world of difference made by openness about hearing loss at work. Whether or not we meet again, Sabina will always have a place in my heart for helping me conquer one of my biggest fears about hearing loss.