Deafness in Foodservice

Although not produce related, our team is involved in foodservice and having a child working in the industry, I learn insights that reach beyond produce.  In recent years this includes the challenges that a deaf / hard of hearing individual experiences in foodservice with the progression of hearing loss my daughter is experiencing. It is our hope that in sharing these challenges, that our industries can glean insights so they can be more inclusive to the talent within the deaf community and provide opportunities.

As much as we all want to support and champion those with disabilities, it is hard to really know the challenges they face until you or someone close to you is facing it.  My daughter was diagnosed a few years ago with an immune condition that is slowly destroying the soft tissue in her body including the tissue in the ears required for hearing.  Not only is she navigating adult life in general, she is doing that in addition to experiencing hearing loss.  This has given our family the unique insight of seeing what challenges a deaf / hard of hearing individual faces in foodservice, as she currently works as a barista at a national coffee chain.  

Having the ability to see past disability to an individual’s unique talents and contributions and place them accordingly brings value to any restaurant or café.  

With the labor shortages going on in foodservice, reaching out to the disabled community is a win-win; people wanting to work, and a foodservice operation finding latent talent.  Additionally, those with disabilities have a level of grit and creativity they master to fit into a world that is not designed for them. 

For disabled workers, making sure management and team members are not only are aware of the disability, but support it as understanding and awareness of the disability is critical to mitigate insensitivity and retain the invaluable talent within the deaf community.

There are a few things to know about deafness: 

  • Hearing loss isn’t all or nothing but has varying degrees.  Partial hearing loss can have a significant impact in an individual’s ability to communicate or respond.  This is called hard of hearing.
  • Hearing loss may be greater with certain frequency ranges of sound.  My daughter has an easier time hearing women’s voices than men’s and so one person may be better understood than another.
  • It is always easiest to communicate through text with someone experiencing hearing loss. They may avoid communicating through phone or may limit who can communicate with them on phone because of the tone and frequency range of the person’s voice.
  • Lip reading is critical.  Knowing you are near a hard of hearing or deaf person and making sure they can see your mouth will improve your communication with them.  You may not even notice they have a disability if you are doing this.
  • A person who lost hearing later will know how to pronounce words like hearing people and it may be hard to notice that they are not full hearing.
  • Someone with good pronunciation who is hard of hearing or deaf may be putting in a lot of effort to speak “normally” and not slur words.  Remember, they may not fully hear themselves, so you may notice that, or they are making a conscious effort to not make mistakes with their speech.
  • You may think a hearing aid or cochlear implant would fix everything for someone who is hard of hearing or deaf.  Hearing devices and implants may amplify sound but is not the same sound that we hear and it is easier and less annoying to go without the device.  In a noisy environment like a restaurant, a hearing aid may be difficult to use.  

One key to inclusivity with deafness, is making accommodation for a deaf/hard-of-hearing worker.  It is important to understand they may not be able to do certain tasks like drive-thru but placing the worker where they can work.  This may seem like an imposition to the employer, having an employee that may not be fully capable to serve in every function, but the fact is they brings their unique talents, personality, work ethic to the workplace which enriches the team and ecosystem.  Having the ability to see past disability to an individual’s unique talents and contributions and place them accordingly brings value to any restaurant or café.