Can I Sit on Your Left?

Navigating the workplace with a new hearing challenge.

By Suzy James
Senior National Account Executive, Meijer Team

 
 

Until about four years ago, my hearing was fine. But one day I began to realize I couldn’t hear that well when I put my phone to my left ear. This took place while I had what felt like a sinus infection that wouldn’t go away. I went through a series of treatments and ultimately a MRI, where I was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor, growing on the nerve that connects the brain to the ear to enable hearing.

post surgery picture
Post surgery picture – a few hours after I woke up!

From there, I was referred to University of Michigan hospital, where I underwent additional tests and learned more about the road that lied ahead. That’s when things got a little overwhelming. Fortunately, the tumor was benign and very slow growing; I may have had it my whole life, but now it was affecting my hearing. After all the tests were complete, my doctor told me I had one option ‒ an 8-hour brain surgery that would leave me permanently deaf on my left side.

I can’t say my first thought was about how this would impact my job. I’m a mom to two young children and they were my first thought. However, I quickly began to wonder how I would handle this new challenge at work.

me with kids
Me with the kids, Eric and Madelyn.

I’ve been with Kellogg for 15 years, since I was a junior in college in the food marketing program at Western Michigan University. I was an intern and then hired full time when I graduated. I also completed my MBA ‒ while working full-time ‒ a few years later. My career and continued professional growth is important.

One of the biggest hurdles for me professionally was figuring out how to talk about my situation with my manager and colleagues. I had to get comfortable opening up about something personal so I and my team could continue to succeed. Fortunately, I had a great manager at the time who told me I couldn’t be the best version of myself at work if I wasn’t first taking care of my health. She gave me the time and space to work through what was happening.

Today, two years after the surgery, I’m pretty open about it. When I meet new people, I tell them I can’t hear out of my left ear and ask to sit on their left. I’m just sharing information, not looking for sympathy. My difference doesn’t define me. I just don’t want them to think I’m rude if I don’t answer, simply because I can’t hear.

kapable team
Kapable Lead Team helping build a handicap accessible playground at a local elementary school.

I’ve found most everyone to be receptive to this approach. For example, when my team and I go into a meeting, I simply ask my team if I can sit in a certain spot to best hear conversation. Everyone is always accommodating and considerate. After all, not all disabilities are visible and we’re all certainly not the same. This is something I try to teach my kids every day. They know mom has a “broken ear” and are learning that none of us should be quick to judge someone else. It’s likely that we don’t know what they’re facing.

That’s one of the reasons I’m involved with our Kapable Business/Employee Resource Group at Kellogg. We’re working together to create a diverse and inclusive environment where everyone can thrive. I find our motto ‒I’mpossible ‒ important and inspiring, because I’ve learned that talking about our differences makes life a little easier for everyone. I encourage you to do the same!