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December 4, 2002

A World of Whispers

From: Citrus County Chronicle, FL - 04 Dec 2002

Hearing-impaired waitress shares struggles and successes in her life

Cheri Harris

magine the sound of a television at its lowest volume.

That’s how 29-year-old Jennifer Custer describes what she hears without the help of two hearing aids.

She was born with a genetic tendency toward chronic ear infections and hearing loss. Custer said she got her first pair of hearing aids at age 16 and her hearing slowly continues to deteriorate.

This impairment hasn’t stopped her from keeping a job that requires strong communication skills. For almost two years, she has worked as a waitress at Dillon’s Inn in Crystal River.

Her regular customers understand that if she isn’t looking at them, she probably won’t hear if they speak to her.

“If I turn my back, I can’t hear anybody,” Custer said.

She asks all her customers to call her by name when they ask her for something.

She often reads lips and watches facial and body expression to supplement what her ears tell her. Sometimes, even with her hearing aids, Custer misses the subtle inflections tucked into speech — especially humor. “Most of the time, I just don’t get it,” Custer said. “I just don’t realize people are being funny or sarcastic.”

But Custer usually finds a way to communicate with her customers.

She recalled only one frustrating experience more than a year ago with a customer she believes was intoxicated. No matter how she tried, she couldn’t understand his speech. So she called the hostess to talk to him. The hostess couldn’t understand the man, either.

For customers who call her as she is walking away, co-worker Virginia Gieseler said the other waitresses help get Custer’s attention.

Custer has helped them, too. Gieseler said Custer has taught her co-workers some sign language to reduce kitchen noise that sometimes leaks into the dining room.

While Custer is happy to have a full-time job that allows her to meet many interesting people, she hopes to obtain vocational rehabilitation training so she can get a better paying job. Her dream job would be to work in a veterinarian’s office.

She doesn’t believe it is fair to rely for the rest of her life on a charitable agency to pay for her hearing aids. Citrus Hearing Impaired Program Services (CHIPS) helped Custer apply for free hearing aids from a national organization. A pair of hearing aids can range in price from $400 to more than $4,000.

Custer said CHIPS executive director Maureen Whitaker is also helping her obtain vocational rehabilitation training from the state.

Whitaker said CHIPS has served the deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired in Citrus County since 1988.

CHIPS has been a part of Custer’s life since she moved about 10 years ago from Massachusetts to Citrus County to be with her grandmother.

The non-profit organization provides advocacy and interpreting services for the deaf, and offers a series of sign language classes twice a year.

CHIPS is supported by United Way of Citrus County. Whitaker said last year, CHIPS received about $36,000 from United Way — about 75 percent of the agency’s annual budget.

“They are the key players in this,” Whitaker said. “If it wasn’t for them, there is no way we could be here. We do not receive any federal or state funding at all.”

Despite help from CHIPS, there are some battles Custer faces alone.

She said she has suffered for more than a year from an ear infection. Her regular physician has referred her to a specialist, which she can’t afford because she doesn’t have health insurance.

Finding employment was also difficult.

“They take a look at my hearing aids,” Custer said, “and don’t think I can do the job.”

Though Custer doesn’t believe in being bitter about her hearing loss, it worries her because every time her hearing is tested, it is a little worse.

“I’m afraid I’ll just wake up one day and not be able to hear anything.”

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