Hearing plays a major role in our quality of life, from our emotional well-being and physical health to our careers and leisure activities. According to the World Health Organization, over five percent of the world’s population — or 466 million people — have disabling hearing loss. Yet many people who have hearing loss let it go untreated.
Hearing loss can occur at any age. For me, I was 19 years old. I was in college studying to become an aerospace engineer, with an offer for an internship at the NASA Space Center and dreams of becoming an astronaut. Like many people with hearing loss, I was in denial. My college roommates told me the TV was too loud, or to turn down my music and to get my hearing checked. Instead, I started to isolate myself — spending more time in my room reading and studying with the door locked so no one would bother me.
I realized the severity of my hearing loss when I awoke suddenly to a fireman shaking me in the middle of the night. It turns out I had already lost my hearing in one ear and did not hear the fire alarms blaring throughout the building. They had to break down my bedroom door to get me out to safety. This was a rude awakening.
I could no longer deny my hearing loss. The doctors told me I had a hereditary disorder causing progressive deafness. Not only had I lost hearing in one ear, but I also learned I would gradually lose hearing in my other ear as well.
For a 19-year-old with dreams of becoming an astronaut, this was devastating. I knew I would not pass the strict medical requirements at the time. I worried if I’d ever lead a “normal” life, or even be able to get a job, let alone be an astronaut. I wanted to hide my hearing aids from people and worked hard to read lips. In fact, I became so proficient at reading lips that I was voted “best eye contact” in my engineering graduating class. While I was certainly focused on people, little did they know I wasn’t looking at their eyes — I was reading their lips! To this day, my focused engagement and “eye contact” with people have become a major asset for me to connect with peers and build deeper relationships, both personally and professionally.
Today, I depend on strobe lights to alert me for fire alarms and new vibration watch technologies as alarm clocks. In the workplace, even with hearing aids, I struggle with everyday conversation and often leverage my secret superhero lip reading skills. Although I must admit, this can also lead to many misunderstandings of what I “thought” people said!
Because hearing loss is not always visible to people, they may not fully understand the day-to-day challenges. Throughout my career, I spent lots of time working alone in my cube. I found it easier to isolate myself than try to engage in larger group settings. Over time, I learned to overcome my fears and the unique challenges I faced in the workplace. To this day, I still struggle with certain environments, like large open forums, which are very common and important as a leader at Intel Corporation. Quite often attendees will say, “I’m sure everyone can hear me,” and they proceed to ask their question without going to the microphone. Or, even if they go to the microphone, it can still be difficult to understand them through the electronic sound.
“Cube life” at Intel can be incredibly difficult. For Skype calls, the amount of amplification I require makes it impossible for me to wear a headset due to audio feedback. For days with multiple back-to-back calls, I’m exhausted from straining to hear and understand conversations. I find it much easier to take calls from home where I have an advanced audio system to amplify the sound.
Large face-to-face meetings continue to be extremely stressful and straining for me. I struggle to hear where the “voice” is in the room, trying to divide my attention among the presenter, the discussions in the room, people on the phone and private conversations on either side of me. When I don’t hear people sitting right next to me, my lack of response can be interpreted as rude. To overcome this, I arrive early to get the best seat in large conference rooms to maximize my hearing and visibility. With time, I’ve realized the importance of sharing and openly talking about my hearing loss with my managers and colleagues to be most effective. Non-native English speakers are even harder for me to understand, adding an additional layer of complexity. Although many people have also told me that my Minnesota accent can be just as difficult to understand!
As much as I have learned to cope (and laugh) at my situation, I still have fears. When asked to share this story, I was very hesitant. Why would I want to tell more than 100,000 Intel employees about my hearing loss? Until now, I’ve typically only told my direct teams or people I work closely with as I did not want anyone to treat me differently. I also was concerned it could limit my career options or the perception of my abilities. I did not see the need to share my story.
Upon further consideration (this was not easy!), I realized that sharing our stories with each other can be very powerful. If I can positively impact one person with my story, speaking out is a risk worth taking. Over the years, there are several people I’ve helped take the step to get hearing aids and they’ve shared with me how it has changed their lives, both personally and professionally. It is my hope that by sharing my story, I can let others with hearing loss or other disabilities know they are not alone. It does not need to define who we are as a person or limit our potential. I hope we can learn from each other and celebrate the benefits and support Intel provides employees. Despite my hearing loss, I am determined to persevere. Although I could not be an astronaut, I could still be an engineer and design new technologies to help impact people’s lives.
One of the great things about working at Intel is that we are recognized as a workplace of choice. This month, Intel was named one of the 2018 Leading Disability Employers by the National Organization on Disability for actively employing people regardless of ability. In my own experience, my managers at Intel have been extremely supportive in helping me feel included, checking in to make sure I can hear during meetings or allowing me to work where and how I work best. In addition, Intel has some of the best health insurance of any company I’ve worked for, including coverage for hearing tests, hearing aids, ear surgeries and beyond. In short, I have never felt discriminated against at Intel for my hearing loss.
Intel believes that in order to shape the future of technology, we must be representative of that future. By bringing together people with a wide range of perspectives, backgrounds and experiences, and encouraging a community of openness and inclusion, Intel continues to innovate and solve the world’s toughest challenges.
I’m hopeful that sharing my story will encourage others to share theirs and fully embrace each of our unique qualities so we can persevere and bring our full selves to work. I’ve always believed we can overcome the challenges in our life and be anything we want to be. I still believe I will go to space one day!
This article was originally published on Intel.com and written by Amy Warner, VP & General Manager, Digital Business Solutions Information Technology.
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