In the Hot Seat with Longtime Member Gael Hannan!

An Interview with Christopher T. Sutton.

by Gael Hannan

Christopher T. SuttonI first met Christopher Sutton, the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association’s (CHHA) new National Executive Director, some years ago at a Hearing Loss Association of America convention where he was working.

We’ve kept in touch and worked together on various initiatives with CHHA and other organizations, so I have a reasonable idea of what he can and can’t do. But still, how well do we ever really know someone? So, because I wasn’t on the search committee for CHHA’s new ED, I posed as a journalist and ask a few polite questions

What on earth makes you think you’re the right person for this job?

Gael, first, I want to thank you for this opportunity – I think.  I’ve never been in the hot seat like this before….

A number of things make me a good fit for this role. I was born with a hearing loss and have that life experience. I understand the challenges and frustrations that hearing loss can cause the individual, family, friends and support systems. Thanks to organizations like CHHA and my own advocacy, I know the tools that help overcome the barriers and live successfully with hearing loss. I’ve also been part of the Deaf and hearing communities and I am often a bridge between the various groups.

I have worked with some of the largest organizations around the world that  represent people with disabilities, where I have been able to develop strong partnerships, come up with innovative ways to overcome challenges and I understand changes and transitions these organizations overcame to get to where they are today.

I hold an MBA from one of the top business schools both in Canada and globally, the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario, where I trained as a business generalist. Throughout my career, I’ve held various cross-functional leadership roles such in business development, fundraising, government and stakeholder relations, marketing and communications, and essentially consider myself a jack of all trades.

While I am well equipped to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead of us, I think it’s my vision, the passion I share, and the leadership I have shown throughout my life that make me right for this job

Do you think other people would agree with that?

Honestly, I am very humble and can be very critical of myself.  I think if you asked others who know me in and out of the hearing health sector, I think they may even speak higher about me and my abilities.

Tell us about your own hearing loss. And give us the short version, because most people like to go on and on about their hearing.

I was born with a progressive inner ear nerve damage. I was adopted as a child and although my parents quickly recognized my hearing loss, it wasn’t until I was 7 ½, that it was diagnosed and I was fitted with two BTE hearing aids.

The first sound I recall hearing was the humming from the refrigerator; my mother cried because she had no idea I was that hard of hearing. As time progressed I lost more hearing and started to use an FM system in school, which I admit to hating. Between the FM system and two big hearing aids, I stood out from the crowd; hearing loss wasn’t as well-known as it is today and technology wasn’t as widespread. I was bullied in school which made me stop wearing my hearing aids and FM system. Looking back, this wasn’t the smartest thing to do; I missed out in my classes, became known as not listening and often would get in trouble, hitting hit rock bottom in Grade 9.

But I then had the opportunity to attend a workshop at the provincial school for the deaf that educated hard of hearing youth about career and educational options after high school. This was an eye-opener; it was my first time meeting other people with hearing loss who had similar issues – this was a saviour for me. My parents did not fully support the idea, as it meant leaving home at such a young age, but I begged them and my school educators to allow me to transfer to the school for the deaf the following fall, where many of the others who had attended that workshop were also transferring. I flourished there, learning about myself, my identity and where my leadership skills shone. I could finally be a student.

After graduation, I had no idea what I wanted to do in my life, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, a lawyer, or something where I could make an impact on others. I had a gap year before university and ended up attending Gallaudet University in Washington, DC in 2000. This was a huge awakening for me; while I felt accepted by the Deaf community in Newfoundland, in DC the Deaf community was much different and I found my place in the hard of hearing world with hard of hearing and hearing students.

After graduation, I worked for the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) known at the time as Self Help for Hard of Hearing People. I had many roles, including providing Hearing Assistive Training to people with hearing loss and professionals. I developed a passion for technology, assistive and adaptive technology.

After being at HLAA for a few years, I noticed that I was living in fatigue, had chronic tinnitus and more communication barriers. A friend encouraged me to get a cochlear implant, although I was reluctant for a variety of reasons. But my friend said, “Christopher, each and every day, you wait to get a cochlear implant, is a day you do not have access to communication,” and three months later, I was implanted at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, MD.

Getting a cochlear implant was a new journey, and with lots of practice, the cochlear implant became a communication tool that reconnected me to the world of sound.

I returned to Canada where I have worked for various organizations in both the non-profit and public sectors, including a startup. Although I had never imagined it as part of my path, I returned to school to do my Executive MBA.  While I have ventured in many directions throughout my career, I always remain connected to my roots and love working to advance the lives of people living with hearing loss, to ensure they don’t face the challenges and barriers that I faced in my earlier life.

Can you spell sensorineural?

Gael, why don’t you just ask me “What is your greatest weakness?”  Let’s just say I am thankful for spell check and Mother Google when it comes to spelling … ????

What is your vision for CHHA? And where will we be 5 years from now, 1 year from now, and next week?

Gael, this is an excellent question, but as I’ve only been on the job a few weeks, I’m asking for a little time before the Board of Directors and I can present the membership with a strong vision and strategic plan to move forward. In the meantime, I’ve been meeting and talking with members, stakeholders, funders and industry leaders for their input.

One overwhelming and common theme is that the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, has been a saviour for many people, it has brought them together, and truly has had an impact on our society overall. At the same time, many don’t see the need for it, or understand what the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association does for them nationally, or that we even exist outside of their local chapter and branch.

Below are some of my short and long-term goals to ensure that the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association is prepared to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

  • Develop and launch a new chha.ca
  • Develop and launch new on-line educational tools
  • Redesign and modernize marketing and other materials
  • Look closely at the structure of the organization to ensure our branches and chapters can support the mission and vision of the organization
  • Enhance the relationship between national, branches and chapters and the Young Adults Network.
  • Look at more sustainable funding models for the organization
  • Enhancing our profile on a National level
  • Developing richer and more collaborative relationships between other disability organizations, the hearing health industry, professionals and other to ensure collectively we have a stronger voice for people with hearing loss

Can you answer the phone, or do you get the ‘hearing’ staff to do that for you?

Is that a trick question? While I do well on the phone, I’m actually more of a text kind of person.

Do you cry easily? Working with non-profits can be challenging.

I have spent most of my career working in the non-profit sector; it has its challenges but it can be equally rewarding.  I have a very thick skin and I don’t cry easily.

Do you like Myrtle Barrett, CHHA’s President?

Myrtle, Myrtle,  what can I say about Myrtle?  She is a strong representative of the members of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association. She also has a passion to help all people to deal successfully with their hearing loss. Those from the rest of Canada often assume that everyone from Newfoundland & Labrador knows everyone else. Which in many areas isn’t far from the truth, especially when talking about the deaf and hard of hearing communities. But while we were acquaintances prior to this, our relationship is really just starting as we work together to build a stronger CHHA. I’m proud to partner with Myrtle Barrett, and her years of tireless advocacy on behalf the country’s hearing loss population are an inspiration to me.

OK, I’m out of questions – but is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you, Gael, for doing this interview; I hope it helps our membership to know me better. I’d also like to thank everyone for the notes of welcome and encouragement when I started with CHHA. I’m excited to work with you all and move  forward.