Sitting in “the den” at Gunther & Co., Chris Kelter said he had no problem hearing the server explain the menu, and the butternut squash risotto he ordered for lunch arrived just as expected.
On a quick glance, it’s nearly impossible to tell that Kelter is hearing-impaired. A closer look reveals a clear, thin wire wrapping from Kelter’s ear canal behind his helix. Perhaps the server noticed. The den is a quieter area where the restaurant seats guests who have hearing loss.
It’s customers like Kelter whom the Baltimore-based Hearing and Speech Agency is training restaurants to accommodate. Often an invisible disability, hearing loss can interfere with a diner’s ability to understand servers and converse with companions. In some cases, it stops hard-of-hearing people from eating out altogether.
The nonprofit began training restaurant employees in hearing hospitality this year at venues including Gunther & Co. in Brewers Hill, La Cuchara in Woodberry, Black-Eyed Suzie’s in Bel Air and Blue Agave in Federal Hill, with more to come.
Erin Stauder, the agency’s executive director, wants restaurants to prioritize accommodations for people with hearing loss the same way they would make arrangements for people with other needs.
“Do you need a booster seat, a handicap-accessible table, or do you need accommodations for hearing loss or hearing status?” she said during a January training with La Cuchara’s management. “I think it just starts conversations and starts to destigmatize something that is very much still stigmatized.”
About 15 percent of American adults have some trouble hearing, with the greatest prevalence of hearing loss between ages 60 and 69, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
“Chances are you’re going to have a huge number of people in your restaurant who have some form of hearing loss, whether it’s aided or unaided,” Stauder said.
Kelter, 49, lost about 70 percent of his hearing in both ears at age 3 due to complications from an illness. But he learned to lip-read, and his Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids have adjustable settings for different situations, including restaurants. The hearing aids connect to an app on his phone that allows him to adjust bass and treble levels, and switch two microphones in each ear on or off to direct the sound he wants to hear.
“I can’t safely function in the world professionally or personally without them,” said Kelter, a Severna Park resident who is executive director of the Maryland Board of Examiners for Audiologists, Hearing Aid Dispensers and Speech-Language Pathologists.
When he was younger and hearing aid technology was primitive, he said, dining out was more overwhelming.
“Everything was amplified,” he said. “I wanted to sit as far away from French doors, doors that would lead to kitchens. … There’s always noise in the kitchen.”
Now with two kids and a busy schedule, Kelter dines out several times a week and participates in trivia at noisy bars. He can’t remember a time his hearing loss caused him to turn down an invitation to a restaurant. But the Hearing and Speech Agency has heard from other community members that Baltimore’s often boisterous restaurant scene deters them from going out to eat.
Erica Jacobs, a Mount Washington resident with severe hearing impairment, said she rarely dines out anymore.
“My hearing loss is gradually worsening, and I think that’s played a big role in it,” said Jacobs, who began noticing her hearing loss in her 30s. The 65-year-old described the sensation as similar to being under water, and she said it’s more pronounced in loud restaurants with large groups.
“It reaches a point of embarrassment for me, so I I ask people to repeat or to rephrase twice and then after that it just becomes an unpleasant experience,” Jacobs said.
She recalled one experience when a server covered her mouth and placed her pen at the corner of her lips while reading the nightly specials.
”That totally prevented me from understanding what she’s saying and she was speaking pretty fast, so that meal I knew what I had ordered for the main course but I had no idea what was coming for the rest of the meal,” Jacobs said. “After she walked away I said, ‘This is going to be a great surprise.’ ”
The Hearing and Speech Agency is trying to prevent similar situations by offering tips to servers and managers that could help smooth communication between restaurant staff and guests with hearing loss. Simple strategies can go a long way, such as facing guests when speaking and maintaining eye contact, and seating guests in areas with better acoustics (seats with pillows and padded banquettes absorb sound).
“Just because someone has hearing loss doesn’t mean they want to be sat in a corner, in a booth away from everything else. They might want to take in that bar atmosphere, they might want to take in the vibe that you guys are so well known for,” Lauren Albers, communications and community engagement manager for the agency, said during the training session at La Cuchara.
Albers and Tammy Black, the nonprofit’s director of development and communications, also suggested asking whether guests need accommodations for hearing loss when taking reservations, writing down or printing menus listing daily specials and ensuring hosts communicate hearing needs to servers.
“Hearing loss is an almost invisible disability, and that contributes to the difficulty because it’s not obvious that a person is hearing-disabled. And when the person wears hearing aids, people assume that ‘Oh, their hearing must be fine,’ ” Jacobs said. “Hearing aids do not work like glasses with vision. Hearing aids help somewhat, but hearing can never be the way that it was once it’s a serious loss.”
Ben Lefenfeld, chef and co-owner of La Cuchara, said a number of the Hearing and Speech Agency’s suggestions came down to basic principles of good hospitality.
“I personally didn’t realize there was a stigma attached with the hearing-impaired,” he said. “But whatever we can do to make them feel more comfortable and just to provide a higher level of service, we’ll always go out of our way to figure out how to provide that.”
He is considering adding a section in La Cuchara’s reservation system that specifically asks whether guests need accommodations for hearing loss.
It’s rare that guests explicitly state they have difficulty hearing, said Michael Farace, front-of-house manager for La Cuchara, but when they do, he tries to accommodate them.
“Usually I’ll show them two or three different options for seating just to try to make them as comfortable as possible,” Farace said. “That’s what we’re trying to do with everybody, just trying to make people comfortable, make people feel welcome, you know, no matter what the situation or scenario is.”
OpenTable allows guests to add special requests, and restaurants like Gunther & Co. take note of guests who request quieter areas to eat.
“OpenTable is kind of our best friend with that,” said Chris McKenna, assistant general manager for Gunther & Co. “Once it’s been identified to us, we can keep that in their permanent notes.”
It can be difficult for customers and restaurant staff alike when guests with hearing loss don’t ask for special accommodations. But because hearing loss is not a visible disability, McKenna is encouraging his staff to put their training into practice.
“Nobody likes to admit necessarily when they do have a difficult time,” he said. “Always go into the situation with a little bit extra volume, a little bit extra eye contact because we can always pull back.”
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