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Local waiter Len Stratton overcomes obstacles of hearing impairment

By ALLISON MILES
Sept. 3, 2010 at 4:03 a.m.
Updated Sept. 4, 2010 at 4:04 a.m.

Len Stratton takes an order from his customer Santos Garcia of Port Lavaca, at Chili's Grill & Bar. Stratton serves tables at Chili's, and even though he has hearing impediments, he successfully does his job and connects with his colleagues at the restaurant.

FOR MORE INFO

Looking for more information on the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services?

The state organization assists people with a variety of disabilities and Victoria has a local branch.

Visit 4102 N. Navarro S., Suite D-2 or call 800-447-9495 to learn more.

In most respects, Len Stratton is your typical server at Chili's Grill & Bar.

But, rather than greeting guests with a simple "hello," the blonde man also places a sign on the table.

"Hello. I'm Len, your server. I have a hearing impairment," it reads. "If you don't mind, could you speak up and talk toward me when you order. Thank you for your patience."

Stratton, 38, suffered sudden hearing loss, but has found ways to make it work.

It began about three years ago, while he was living in Austin.

Stratton was sitting at his computer when a loud ringing began in his ears, he said. Eventually, he fell asleep.

He woke to find half his face swollen and a case of vertigo so intense he couldn't walk across the room.

"I crawled to my computer and e-mailed my boss," he said, explaining he worked at an Austin Chili's. "In the subject line, I put 'Need to go to the emergency room' and I sent it about 10 times."

Stratton's boss drove him to the hospital and stayed for nine hours as doctors ran tests and admitted him into intensive care.

He was diagnosed with sudden hearing loss and learned he also had type 1 diabetes.

"All of the sudden, life changed like that," Stratton said, snapping his fingers. "That first night, in the ICU, I thought, 'God, OK, what do I need to do to deal with this?'"

He returned to the Crossroads and resumed work with the Victoria restaurant, adapting work to his impairment.

A wipe board helps him speak with the kitchen staff and co-workers call out requests if necessary. A laminated sheet allows customers to write down orders if they prefer.

Most guests react well to him, he said.

"I have had people who have rejected me and said they wanted someone with hearing," he said. "But most people are very accommodating."

Additional help came unexpectedly on the job.

Stratton worked the same section every night for about two years but switched with a co-worker for one day because he had plans. That night, Megan Bennett, with with the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, sat in his section.

"There are situations where it just feels like things happen for a reason," he said. "I believe this was one of those things."

Bennett, a vocational rehabilitation counselor, asked Stratton about his hearing loss. The rehabilitation service's aim is to help people handle disabilities so they can continue or return to work.

"I was really interested in how he was managing being a waiter and having a hearing loss because I know that's pretty difficult to do," she said.

Bennett began working with Stratton, mainly helping him obtain hearing aids so he can better communicate. Once he receives them, she will help him adapt to the changes because, even with assistance, his hearing won't be perfect.

"What I like about this program is the idea that we help somebody a little bit so that they can help themselves a lot," she said.

Stratton hasn't let his disabilities get him down, said Richard Posada, general manager of Chili's in Victoria.

"Even with his obstacles, he knows how to take care of the guests," he said. "He knows what it takes."

Stratton said he finds ways to make up for what he lacks. He fixed a restaurant TV that recently broke, for instance, and pays extra attention to tables.

"I try to know what they need before they know," he said, explaining his 22 years in restaurant experience helps.

Even so, it isn't always easy.

His disability has meant lifestyle changes, such as giving up his guitar playing, but also has him returning to school to become a CPA.

"I wish I could say it was a daily struggle, but it's an hourly struggle," Stratton said. "If I'm not careful, my blood sugar will drop."

His company and co-workers help. Chili's is flexible with his hours, since his diabetes sometimes means he's too sick to make it to work, and someone is always there to help.

"Everything revolves around teamwork here," he said. "If I didn't have help, trust me. I couldn't do my job."

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