Hearing Loss and Retail Jobs

Hearing Loss and Retail Jobs

So, I wear a hearing aid in one ear and nothing in the other, but I was raised speaking despite a rather significant impairment. When I was 16, my mom made me go to a job fair, where I promptly got my first job working retail in a local museum gift shop with a high volume of tourists. I think at the time, I was so young that I didn’t really consider that… maybe I’d have some difficulties?!

But, lo and behold, I held that job for six years, working summers and weekends in high school, and when I was home from college. Later on when I was about 25/26 years old, I worked at Crate & Barrel for 6 months to make some extra holiday money. I got so good at quickly wrapping glassware in tissue paper that when I moved to Germany the movers just let me pack the kitchen!

So much of a conversation is about context. I was always ready for a customer to ask questions about pricing, color, size, etc. I think everyone does this to some degree mostly unconsciously—ever been thrown off by someone asking a question out of left field because your brain isn’t catching onto what they’re getting at? So, in person, I never struggled much, but I know some customers could tell I was lip-reading on occasion.

So what were my troubles? By FAR the biggest obstacle was the telephone. My first job, the phone was loud and clear. At Crate & Barrel, the phones I had to answer were pretty bad. It gave me a lot of anxiety, and the extremely loud store music didn’t help. There was enough staff that varied day-to-day that not all of them knew or remembered that I was hard of hearing, and I didn’t want to NOT answer the phone when I was the closest one. So many times, I had to get a co-worker to help take the call. I knew I wasn’t in the job for the long haul, so I didn’t push for better accommodation, but in hindsight, I should have. I will if I go back to work there again someday!

Getting customer emails to sign them up for marketing materials was tough sometimes. Most people have straightforward email addresses, but every once in a while it’d be something like “bdzcdt at…” and I’d really have to strain to catch the right letter sound. Also, because I can only hear in one ear, if someone started asking me something from behind me or on my bad side, I sometimes wouldn’t hear them. Once or twice a customer would start lecturing me about being rude, and I would (as politely as I could muster) shut them down on that by explaining my hearing loss. My stores never had walkie-talkie systems, but I know I’d struggle with that too.

On the whole though, retail was a really positive experience, and as someone with hearing loss that is naturally shy, it really forced to me to interact with a ton of different people, so it was a huge factor that shaped my life.

Has your hearing loss affected your job choices?

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