Losing hearing brings changes in career options

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2004

Nancy Brown was a radio reporter in Alaska in the early 1990s, when she noticed her hearing was declining.

"My hearing degenerated to the point where I couldn't follow council meetings and so forth, so I had to give it up," she said of a 12-year career in places like Homer, Kodiak and Bethel.

Now, Brown holds a new associate's degree in business administration and a certificate as an accounting technician. She soon will start work as an accountant for the state.

Brown said she's a detail-oriented person who enjoys the challenge of balancing and reconciling financial books - "getting everything to come out right."

The transition from reporter to accountant, from a hearing world to a quieter world, wasn't easy and it has taken several years.

Brown moved to Juneau around 1997 and became a client at the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and then an employee. She started at the front desk at the regional office in the Mendenhall Valley, helped process new clients and then tracked the office accounts and worked on the regional budget.

As her hearing declined, the division accommodated her with jobs she could perform.

"Everybody's very supportive," Brown said. "They don't look at it as a disability. They look at it as an ability with accommodations."

The agency put a flashing device on the wall so Brown would know when the phone was ringing, said Deb Woodruff, a vocational rehabilitation counselor who has known Brown as a co-worker for one and a half years.

"Some of what's going on is called carving of a job, so the specific skills she has are carved into her position," Woodruff said.

Brown said she's excited by the challenges and possibilities of the accounting job.

But, she said, "It's also scary because I have so many skills and I want to learn and I'm fairly intelligent - but there's always that fear about hearing. ... There's a big training curve, a lot to learn. It's always there - you want to communicate with people all the time, but you miss a lot."

Brown isn't deaf. She can hear but not well. She has nerve loss in her ear canal, a condition that's genetic, she said.

Brown reads lips, wears a hearing aid and sometimes asks people to speak into a small microphone that feeds into an earphone.

At group meetings at work, such as teleconferences, a stenographer sets down what people are saying. For phone calls, Brown uses the Sprint relay operator, who transcribes on a computer what the other party is saying. It's not very suitable for personal calls.

Lynda Batchelor Barker, owner of Glacier Stenographic Reporters, does captioning for Brown. Batchelor Barker types in shorthand, which her laptop computer translates into full English words and displays on the screen.

Batchelor Barker volunteered to caption at the University of Alaska Southeast commencement on May 2 at Centennial Hall, where Brown received her second associate's degree and a certificate. Brown said that her first commencement, two years ago, was a miserable experience because she couldn't hear it.

Batchelor Barker also typed the captioning for a UAS law class that Brown took this year. Most of Brown's college classes have been through distance technology such as the Internet.

"It worked perfectly," said Batchelor Barker. "She was able to respond to questions and answers. She was able to participate in the mock Supreme Court panel."

Working with Brown has been "one of the most satisfactory things I have done in my career," Batchelor Barker said, "because you can work with one person and realize you're making a difference in their life."

Brown said she could write a book on how her life has been changed by the hearing impairment.

"It just affects every area of your life," she said.

She used to be very sociable and involved in all kinds of arts. She used to be a radio DJ, for that matter, but can't hear music now. She's channeled her artistic interests into the visual arts, and draws and paints more than in the past.

"I think as her world gets faded away and distanced with the hearing world, she's drawn into her greatest strengths, which are her art and organizational skills," Woodruff said.

Woodruff recalls a pen and ink drawing by Brown of two old trees that have widened with time and grown together. The trunks look like hips sitting side by side, and branches are like arms stretched around each other, as Brown saw it.

"I think that's the way she can touch base with people the most readily," Woodruff said of Brown's drawings.

The hearing impairment has changed her life emotionally, physically, socially, spiritually and financially, Brown said.

"You have to learn how to live differently, which is the mission of rehabilitation," she said.

Brown's advice to people who face loss of hearing is to accept it as a natural process, grieve and move on. It's important to find the right employer, someone who understands what accommodations are needed, she added.

The state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation helps clients figure out what job is right for them, how to get the needed skills and how to advocate for themselves. The service is individualized and confidential, said Beau Kelly, manager of the Southeast region.

Kelly said the person comes before the disability.

"People want to be known as a person, not by their disability," he said.

Brown said people with hearing impairments should see the positive aspects of the condition, such as becoming another type of good listener. Sometimes people she talks to are impatient.

"I want to hear what you're saying so much. I want to understand and hear that. Just try not to get frustrated," Brown said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.

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