Unnecessary Unpleasantness

By Tina Blue
March 8, 2002

          We who are deaf or hard of hearing are used to the fact that a lot of hearing people will be inconsiderate of our hearing impairment and refuse to make even the slightest effort to help us follow what is going on.

          We are even used to the idea that a lot of people will get annoyed with us and will snap at us for not hearing well or for asking them to repeat what they have said.

          But a couple of evenings ago I had an experience with a co-worker that tops every other experience I have ever had of rudeness directed against me for my deafness.

          In addition to my regular job as a poorly-paid adjunct instructor of English at the University of Kansas, I also work as a scorer for a company that processes state assessment essay tests.  Every year we start a new project around the beginning of March.  During the semester I work the night shift, and when the semester ends, I work the day shift.  I have been doing this for four years.

          Each new project starts with up to a week of training, so that we can learn the rubric we are to apply to the essays we will score. Usually there are around 150-200 scorers, so we work in a large room with lots of tables.  During training, we sit at long rows of tables, facing Greg, the scoring director, who explains in detail how the rubric has been applied to essays in the training sets.  It is absolutely essential that a scorer hear and understand everything the trainer says. 

          Because of my severe hearing impairment, I always sit front and center during training, right in front of the place where the trainer stands.  Since I have worked there for four years, the supervisors are quite aware of my deafness.  Although they sometimes forget and start pacing while speaking, so that I have to remind them I can't hear if they walk away from where I am sitting, for the most part they try to remember to stay center-front so I can read their lips and catch at least some of the sounds of their words.

          I am a particularly efficient scorer--about four times faster than average and extremely accurate--so they don't really seem to mind accommodating my handicap, especially since the accommodations I ask for are so minimal: I get to sit front and center; they don't mumble, pace from one side of the room to the other, or turn their backs while speaking.  Actually, by accommodating my needs, they are probably also making it easier for everyone else in the room to hear what they are saying.

          Once training begins, almost everyone sits in the same place every night.  We don't have assigned seats, but on any given night pretty much everyone will be where he or she is on any other night. 

          Well, last Wednesday, Linda, a new scorer, moved from where she was sitting to the empty seat to my right.  Since that seat had been empty since the project started two nights earlier, I thought nothing of her move. 

          But then when I came in on Thursday night, Linda was sitting in my regular seat.  I went to her and said, "Linda, I'm sorry, but I have to sit there because I am deaf, and I can't hear the trainer from anywhere else in the room.  Would you mind moving over one seat?"

          Please note that I was merely asking her to move to the seat she had occupied the night before, right next to mine.  I wasn't asking her to relocate to Outer Mongolia!

          Now, you might wonder why I couldn't just sit in the seat she'd had the previous evening.  But when I position myself, I do so with careful consideration of exactly where Greg will be speaking from.  If I am displaced too far to the right or left of his voice stream, it will be more difficult for me to catch any of his speech.  Also, I need a particular angle on someone's lips in order to facilitate lipreading.  I am a very efficient lipreader, but I can't read lips from the side.  I have to be facing the speaker straight on.

          The seat I had been occupying all week was about six feet to Greg's right.  Not quite enough to make it too hard to read his lips, but quite as far to one side as I could go without making it difficult both to catch his voice stream and to read his lips.  But I had been forced to take that seat rather than the ones directly in front of him, because there were three other people involved in the training, and they were sitting to one side of him.  I needed to be positioned to catch what they said, too.  Thus the seat I had chosen was really the only one I could function well in.  If  I moved to my left, I would have trouble hearing the other three supervisors when they spoke, but if I moved to my right, I would have trouble hearing what Greg said when he spoke.

          Although there are some new people every year, most of us who score have been doing this for several years.  Almost everyone there knows about my hearing impairment, and they know that I always sit in a certain place.  It has never bothered anyone.

          But when I asked Linda if she would move back to the seat she'd been sitting in the night before, she went ballistic!

          She began to slam her books and materials together, loudly denouncing me for being so rude and obnoxious.  Then she huffily moved to the very end of the table (which is where she had been sitting on Monday and Tuesday night).  She continued ranting about my rudeness as she changed her seat.  Everyone around us looked at her in amazement, but she was on a roll, and I doubt that she even noticed anyone's reaction.

          Since it was a few minutes before the start of our shift, I went to get a drink of water and to sharpen my pencils.  On the way by the office, I stopped in to tell Greg what had just taken place.  For decades I have been dealing with difficulties caused by my deafness, and one thing I know is that it is important to get your side of the story on record as early as possible.  When I told him how enraged Linda had been when I asked her to move, he was quite taken aback.  "You've been sitting there all week," he said.  "Why on earth did she take your seat in the first place?"

          I'm sure I don't know.  I mean, the seat she'd been in the night before was right next to mine, so there was no advantage to my seat for anyone without a significant hearing impairment.  Her hearing is normal, so she has no need of precise positioning of the sort I require. 

          There was something downright childish about the way she had made a grab for a seat she knew to be regularly occupied by someone else.  The lady who regularly sits to my left told me that she had been surprised that Linda would take the seat that everyone knew I always sat in, but she'd figured it was just a mistake and that Linda would move as soon as I came in and she realized what she had done.

          I told Greg that I didn't know if anything more would come of the incident, but if it did, I would have to ask him to speak with her. After I returned to the table, I found at my place a Post-It note with Linda's rant in writing.  "You are very rude and obnoxious," it read.  "Your handicap doesn't give you the right to demand whatever you want.  I got here earlier than you did, and I was in that seat first.  You had no right to expect me to move!"

          I went over to where she was sitting and tried to speak to her rationally, but apparently Linda is not a rational person.  I couldn't get past her shouting:  "CAN YOU READ MY LIPS!  GOOD!  BECAUSE I WANT TO TELL YOU TO YOUR FACE HOW RUDE AND OBNOXIOUS YOU ARE!  WE DON'T HAVE ASSIGNED SEATS, SO I CAN SIT ANYWHERE I WANT! I AM HANDICAPPED TOO! I HAVE A HANDICAPPED STICKER ON MY CAR BECAUSE I HAVE A BAD HIP!  DO YOU HAVE A HANDICAPPED STICKER ON

          I guess she thinks that the fact that I can't qualify for a handicapped parking sticker means that my deafness doesn't really count as a handicap that requires accommodation. 

          Since I couldn't get her to hear me, I simply went back to Greg's office and handed him the note Linda had left on my table.  As he read it his jaw dropped open in astonishment.  Then I told him that if she left me alone after this, nothing more would come of it, but if she continued to harass me for needing an accommodation for my handicap, I would have to file a complaint with our Human Resources representative.

          Linda doesn't look like a troublemaker.  She is maybe sixty, perhaps even older, a stout little gray-haired grandmotherly type.  But nasty people don't necessarily turn nice just because they get older and end up looking like someone's grandmother. 

          My guess is that she has always been trouble.  I don't think for a minute that she was unaware of how inappropriate is was to snatch someone else's regular seat, even if that person had no hearing impairment.  It was just a really weird thing to do. 

          And there is also no doubt that she was aware of my deafness, because when she had mumbled something to me the night before, I had delivered my usual speech, "I'm sorry, I am deaf.  Could you speak up just a little?"  And, of course, I had shown her at the time that I wear hearing aids.

          No, her act was a deliberate provocation.  She was looking for a fight.  She knew I would have to ask her to move, and that would give her an excuse to yell at me and call me names. 

          Since then she has not said anything more to me.  Good thing, too, because I would get her reprimanded at least, and possibly fired, for harassing me over my handicap.  That's definitely a no-no in the workplace, and I won't hesitate to assert my rights. 

          Every now and then I do see her glaring at me, and I could get her in trouble for that if I wanted to, but I won't bother.  As long as she stays out of my way and doesn't directly interfere with me, I will just let her enjoy her snit. 

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