April 20, 2016 - 9:00 PM
‘NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE’
VERNON - The hardest part of Kirsten Ward’s job as a cashier at Safeway isn’t being deaf.
It’s remembering all the codes.
She writes this answer down with a laugh during an interview conducted on pen and paper, the easiest format since her interviewer doesn't know sign language. Born completely deaf, the cheerful 44-year-old has been working as a cashier at Safeway in Vernon for about a year — a job she loves but didn't always think was possible. Finding a job, especially one that involves communicating with customers, isn't always the easiest feat for people who are deaf, she says.
But, with support from the non-profit corporation Community Futures of the North Okanagan, she decided to approach Safeway in Vernon about giving her a chance.
“It was a long hiring process,” she writes. “They had so many questions about how this was going to work, but here I am.”
Many don’t immediately notice the orange sign on her till stating she is deaf and cannot hear them. When she points at the sign, people don't always know quite what to do or how to act, Ward says. But, the confusion is only ever brief. A few simple additions at the till help make things run smoothly. Customers can point to answers on a laminated question card, or write messages on an electronic board to communicate. The most common message she gets is people commenting on the orange sign at her till.
“They love it,” she writes in quick, but tidy, penmanship.
On occasion, people surprise her by striking up a conversation in sign language, but even those who aren’t fluent in ASL will probably find communicating with Ward isn’t as hard as they might have thought. Her friendly, positive personality helps her make instant connections with customers — without hearing a single word they say.
Safeway store manager Craig Dickson says when Ward first applied, he discussed it with his human resources advisor and they decided to bring her on even though it would mean doing things a little differently.
“We are certainly glad we did because she’s an exceptionally vibrant employee,” Dickson says. “You have to have an open mind and you have to have the latitude to tailor the job to fit the employee.”
Customers often compliment the store for hiring diverse employees, but Dickson says they aren’t look for praise — just good employees.
“I think the lesson to be learned by all employers is to be open-minded. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Give people an opportunity to prove themselves and you’ll be surprised,” Dickson says.
It’s an open-mindedness that Ward couldn’t be happier to have found. She loves working and interacting with people, and her favourite part of being a cashier is ‘making people’s day.’ She also works as a language facilitator for School District 22, so her shifts at Safeway are only part time and mostly on evenings, weekends and holidays, but she always looks forward to getting called in.
“A lot of people I have met (who are deaf) comment ‘it’s hard to find work.’ But keep believing and keep trying. We can overcome barriers. Some people are just learning that we are all the same,” Ward says. “Nothing is impossible. Keep pushing on, you can do it.”
Asked what she considers to be her biggest achievements in life, Ward says a big one is surviving cancer. She was diagnosed in 2014 and underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — but she battled her way through it. Her four kids are also high on the list. And then, there’s something else.
“Safeway believing in me,” she says.
Ward has a sign at her till letting customers know she can't hear them, and also has an electronic board where people can write down questions.
(CHARLOTTE HELSTON /InfoTel Multimedia)
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