The deaf hotelier was born in Rome, where his deafness was diagnosed when he was a year old. He says he never answered when his grandfather called him, so his grandfather was the first person to notice that something was wrong. His mother immediately took him to a specialist, who confirmed their suspicions.
While his parents were shocked and likely distressed about his hearing loss, Wirth says his father in particular was very disappointed. His American mother knew someone who was deaf – a good friend’s sister. Upon Wirth’s diagnosis, she reached out to this family for help. They suggested that she get in touch with the Clarke School for the Deaf in Massachusetts. When he was four years old, Wirth’s mother took him there and spoke to the headmaster.
“He told her that I was too young to transfer to the States, and a school for the deaf in Italy was far better,” Wirth says. “It was then decided that I should go to an oral school for the deaf in Milan, as this was considered the most advanced school for the deaf in Italy at the time.”
Wirth has always used hearing technology; now he wears digital hearing aids that have been adjusted to produce analogical sounds to meet his specific needs.
Read more: I miss my analogue hearing aids
Wirth says learning English wasn’t very difficult. The biggest problem was reading lips, as his understanding depended solely on lip movement.
“In English, there are five vowels, but 12 vowels in pronunciation,” he says. “Instead, Italian is easier as there are five written and five pronounced. English is much more difficult to lipread.”
At the age of 12, he went to England for a couple summers in a row to learn and improve his English.
Wirth’s deafness was a big obstacle to everyone except for him. In addition to being a Swiss perfectionist, Wirth’s father came from a hotelier family. He thought the business would be impossible to hand down to Wirth. Since Wirth has a younger brother who speaks various languages and is considered a good communicator, their father saw him as more appropriate to follow the family business.
“However, my innate hotelier passion, together with my strong will and determination, has taken me here,” Wirth says. “From when I was a young child, I would admire my father’s work, following him daily in all his activities with the various staff and hotel departments. His career was always my goal and inspiration, and I failed to see any obstacle in being deaf. I firmly believe that life you can win every obstacle, if you create your own identity and confidence, which I did!”
“I firmly believe that life you can win every obstacle, if you create your own identity and confidence, which I did!”
Wirth spent nine years in the States before returning to Rome, of which he says he has fond memories. He graduated from Cornell University and then worked at the Hyatt Hotel in Honolulu for two years. There, he tried to help other deaf people get a job. He quickly learned that his drive and passion for the industry wasn’t shared by others.
“Other deaf workers did not succeed like me and eventually some were laid off from work,” he says.
During his stint in Honolulu, the mayor asked to meet him and enlisted his help with a project to reduce community welfare costs. In the mornings, Wirth worked at the Hyatt and in the afternoons – paid by the city council – he taught various hotel heads of departments how to communicate with people who are deaf by using ASL.
“This permitted the hotels to employ deaf people and the city council to reduce welfare costs at the same time,” he says.
Wirth garnered vast experience in the industry in the U.S., as well as in Europe, which gave him the strength, solid background, and self-confidence to return to the family business.
Wirth has had to fight hard and overcome many challenges to be a deaf hotelier.
“Every day has been challenging in this business,” he says. He considers his deafness an advantage. His five-star hotel, Hotel Hassler, sits atop the Spanish Steps in Rome. He also has three other smaller family properties in Tuscany and Umbria.
In 2005, Wirth received the prestigious award of Independent Hotelier of the World. He was also one of eight deaf recipients of the Deaf Nation Inspiration Award (for Hotel Hospitality) in 2012. In 2014, he was awarded the Leading Legend award by Leading Hotels of the World.
“All these recognitions are fruit of my dedication and strong passion to being a successful hotelier,” he says.
This past April was Julie Grisham’s third time staying at Hotel Hassler. The bilateral CI-wearer calls her stays there in addition to her interactions with Wirth the highlights of her trips. She and her hearing parents noticed his interactions with staff because it’s clear they’re well trained in communication. The staff always repeats what he says to make sure they’ve understood him. The staff was also aware that Grisham needed to read lips, which made her communication with them easy. She described Wirth as being “soft spoken, so incredibly kind and unpretentious, and smart.”
Tania and Jonathan Samson – both deaf CI users – stayed at Hotel Hassler this past July. They too called the staff amazing and their stay exemplary. The couple noticed that the staff was more expressive in communicating with Wirth; they pointed things out, indicated, or spoke clearly. In turn, Wirth often gestured and clearly pointed out what he wanted to his staff. Jonathan Samson offers up one example:
“Roberto wanted one of his staff to smile more often, so he indicated that by using his fingers on the corners of his mouth (the universal sign for smile), and then said, ‘Teeth,’ and pointed to his teeth. In other words, smile showing your teeth, so it’s genuine. It was brilliant, actually.”
Tania Samson adds that Wirth is extremely visual and keenly aware of how to make the service good for his guests as he notices everything. As a result of Wirth’s management and his deafness, the staff are more attentive to guests and maintain good eye contact.
Hotel Hassler has a mandatory charge (just one or two Euros) on the bill that goes towards deaf organization groups in Italy. Wirth is also founder and president of CABSS, a non-profit organization that offers early intervention programs to deaf and deaf/blind children between the ages of 0 and 6.
Wirth practically never receives any negative feedback about his deafness.
“On the contrary, people take the time to leave me flattering remarks and notes about the way I manage the hotel.” He has clearly surpassed any expectations his father had of him.